A Google investigation has found evidence for the first time that Russian operatives attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election by exploiting the company’s platforms, the Washington Post reported on Monday.
Google discovered that Russian agents spent tens of thousands of dollars on advertisements with the goal of spreading disinformation across a spectrum of Google’s products, including YouTube, as well as ads associated with Google search, Gmail, and its DoubleClick ad network, according to anonymous sources cited in a Post article that revealed details of the investigation, which has not yet been made public.
The investigation indicates that the ads may not be connected to the “troll farm” affiliated with the Kremlin that purchased ads on Facebook, a significant discovery indicating that “the Russian effort to spread disinformation online may be a much broader problem than Silicon Valley companies have unearthed so far,” according to the Post.
On Sunday’s 60 Minutes, President Donald Trump’s digital campaign manager, Brad Parscale, revealed that employees from Google, as well as Facebook and Twitter, embedded with the Trump campaign to teach campaign staff how to use the platforms to target voters.
Parscale told correspondent Lesley Stahl that his primary job was to send hundreds of thousands of “carefully-tailored, low-cost digital ads” to millions of people on Google search, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.
The Trump campaign used the technology to “microtarget on a scale never seen before,” according to Parscale, who also noted that he specifically requested Republican employees from these social media and digital companies to embed with the campaign.
In response to the television segment, Facebook tried to distance itself from the Trump campaign, telling 60 Minutes in a statement that although Facebook teams offer insight into how the company’s products work, “campaigns make their own strategic decisions about how to use the Facebook platform.”
“…for candidates across the political spectrum, Facebook offers the same level of support in key moments to help campaigns understand how best to use the platform,” Facebook wrote.
60 Minutes reached out to the Hillary Clinton campaign, which confirmed that the same offer was made to have Facebook staff embed with the campaign, but was turned down.
As the Trump campaign was working with staffers from these platforms to target persuadable voters, Russian operatives were apparently illegally doing the same thing — promoting Trump, as well as candidates on the left who would siphon votes from Hillary Clinton.
The Washington Post noted that until now, Google has “mostly avoided the scrutiny” that’s focused on Facebook, which recently provided Congressional investigators with about 3,000 Russian-bought ads. According to the social network, the ads were bought by operatives linked with the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm affiliated with the Russian government.
The Post also noted that Google had previously downplayed Russian meddling on its platforms, citing a Google spokeswoman who told the Post last month that the company is “always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies and we’ve seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms.”
But as Congress pressed technologies companies to find out how Russian operatives influenced the 2016 elections by tapping social media, online ads, and other digital tools, Google launched an investigation.