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Considered opinionThe Facebook ad dump shows the true sophistication of Russia’s influence operation

By Derek Hawkins

Published 16 May 2018

The massive trove of Facebook ads House Intelligence Committee Democrats released last Tuesday offers a breathtaking view of the true sophistication of the Russian government’s digital operations during the 2016 presidential election. Many stories have already been written about the U.S. intelligence community’s investigation of the hacking operation Russian intelligence services carried out to influence the election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. Derek Hawkins writes that the more than 3,000 “incredibly specific and inflammatory” Russian ads released last week allow us for the first time to “have a swath of empirical and visual evidence of Russia’s disinformation campaign.”

The massive trove of Facebook ads House Intelligence Committee Democrats released last Tuesday offers a breathtaking view of the true sophistication of the Russian government’s digital operations during the 2016 presidential election.

Many stories have already been written about the U.S. intelligence community investigation of the hacking operation Russian intelligence services carried out against Democratic Party computer networks to influence the election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. 

Derek Hawkins writes in the Washington Post that the release of the Russian Facebook ads “is the first time we have a swath of empirical and visual evidence of Russia’s disinformation campaign, in the form of more than 3,000 incredibly specific and inflammatory ads purchased by an Internet troll farm sponsored by the Kremlin.”

The ads show how Russia weaponized social media, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), the senior Democrat on the panel investigating Moscow’s interference in the presidential election, said. Russians “sought to harness Americans’ very real frustrations and anger over sensitive political matters in order to influence American thinking, voting and behavior,” Schiff added.

Hawkins continues:

The 3,500 ads purchased by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, or IRA, were funneled with laser precision to narrow categories of social media users. 

My colleague Tony Romm reports that the troll farm used Facebook’s targeting tools to deliver the Russian-fed propaganda to a range of specific user groups, from black or gay users to fans of Fox News. He writes: “In many cases, the Kremlin-tied ads took multiple sides of the same issue. Accounts like United Muslims of America urged viewers in New York in March 2016 to ‘stop Islamophobia and the fear of Muslims.’ That same account, days later, crafted an open letter in another ad that accused [Hillary] Clinton of failing to support Muslims before the election.”

The Russian agents didn’t stop there, Tony notes: “They relied on Facebook features to target specific categories of users. An IRA-backed account on Instagram aimed a January 2016 ad about ‘white supremacy’ specifically to those whose interests included HuffPost’s ‘black voices’ section.”

The IRA sought to capitalize on the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem—and even, as Tony found, get people to protest for and against Beyoncé. NBC reports that the ads even shopped anti-immigrant messages to fans of specific Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. This effort to lure social media to engage with Russian-fed propaganda like this clearly required a sound knowledge of Americans and their politics that is especially staggering when you see the ads in full.

Peter W. Singer, a strategist at the New America think tank, told Hawkins that this type of “hybrid” cyberoperation is the new standard for state-sponsored election interference campaigns.

“The future of these campaigns is hybridization — in terms of state and criminal actors working together,” Singer told me. Going forward, he said, we’ll see more “attacks targeting both the networks and the beliefs and conversations of people behind the networks.” 

As Singer notes: “When it comes to cyberoperations and information warfare or influence campaigns, the way we conceive of them is we keep them separate.” But, as the ads make very clear, Russia “didn’t separate them,” he said. 

….

The ad trove adds color to details about the IRA that we already know from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into election interference.

Mueller’s February indictment of the now-infamous group of Internet trolls was chock-full of colorful details about the St. Petersburg-based group and read like something out of a spy novel. As my colleagues Devlin Barrett, Sari Horwitz and Rosalind S. Helderman reported at the time:

“The indictment charges that the Russian efforts began in 2014, when three of the Russian conspirators visited 10 states, gathering intelligence about U.S. politics. Officials say that as the operation progressed, the suspects also engaged in extensive online conversations with Americans who became unwitting tools of the Russian efforts.”

The indictment described “an 80-person team with specialists in graphics, data analysis and search-engine optimization that set out to con Americans online,”my colleagues wrote. “At times, they paid people to engage in political theater, such as paying for the construction of ‘a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform,’ according to the charges.”

Mueller’s charges against 13 individuals and three companies included conspiracy to defraud the United States, and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud.

Read the article: Derek Hawkins, “The Facebook ad dump shows the true sophistication of Russia’s influence operation,” Washington Post (11 May 2018)