Monday the NY Times published a story on Facebook pages connected to Russian efforts to impact the 2016 election. What the Times was told by anonymous sources with knowledge of the ongoing investigation is that many of the pages, and ads purchased to promote them, focused on polarizing issues rather than advocating for specific candidates:
There was “Defend the 2nd,” a Facebook page for gun-rights supporters, festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric. There was a rainbow-hued page for gay rights activists, “LGBT United.” There was even a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies that spread across the site with the help of paid ads…
In every case, the voices posed as Americans and presumed to speak for like-thinking fellow citizens: anti-immigration zealots, gun-rights advocates, gay rights supporters, African-American activists — and, more incongruously, dog lovers, according to the two people familiar with the sampling of advertisements.
The LGBT United page and a Twitter account called @LGBTuni, featuring a rainbow symbol, declared: “We speak for all fellow members of LGBT community across the nation. Gender preference does not define you. Your spirit defines you.”
The Defend the 2nd page appeared to have spread messages of support for gun rights.
The Times included this image of one of the Facebook ads and points out the line “…out of cemetery” which should read “out of a cemetery.” The Times describes this as “a characteristic mistake for Russians speaking English.”
As for the page dedicated to adorable puppies, the speculation is that perhaps the goal there was to build a large audience which could then be used to distribute political content, but that hasn’t been confirmed.
Facebook estimated Monday that about 10 million people had viewed the various advertisements. However, more than half of the ad impressions for these 3,000 ads came after election day: “44% of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were after the election.”
Some of the ads were targeted to specific geographic locations. Last week CNN reported that ads about Black Lives Matter were targeted to reach Ferguson and Baltimore. Today, CNN reports that some of the Russian-bought ads also focused on swing states:
A number of Russian-linked Facebook ads specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Donald Trump’s victory last November, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the situation…
And while one source said that a large number of ads appeared in areas of the country that were not heavily contested in the elections, some clearly were geared at swaying public opinion in the most heavily contested battlegrounds.
As I noted last month, Facebook has previously said that about a quarter of the 3,000 ads in question were geographically targeted and of those, the majority ran in 2015 rather than 2016. So there are individual examples of ads targeted at swing states but it doesn’t appear these were narrowly targeted in the closing days of the election. As for evidence that any of this activity involved the Trump campaign, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff says he still doesn’t know:
“Obviously, we’re looking at any of the targeting of the ads, as well as any targeting of efforts to push out the fake or false news or negative accounts against Hillary Clinton, to see whether they demonstrate a sophistication that would be incompatible with not having access to data analytics from the campaign,” Schiff said Tuesday evening. “At this point, we still don’t know.”
Democrats have spent 10 months suggesting Russia was a factor in Hillary’s loss and further suggesting the Trump campaign was complicit. So far what we actually see (and here I renew my call to release all of these formerly public ads to the public) is Russia trying to capitalize on polarizing news topics (gun control, gay rights) and news stories (Ferguson, Baltimore) in order to emphasize division in America. That’s something they were already doing openly with their propaganda news networks.
Maybe more dramatic discoveries will turn up. It certainly seems worth investigating the details of this foreign interference in our election, but so far I’m not seeing anything that would require any American collusion. Anyone following American news online would be aware that these issues are divisive.