The American public finally got a glimpse at one of the key tools in the Kremlin’s online disinformation arsenal, when on Thursday Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released around 3,400 Facebook ads used by Russian agents to exploit America’s ethnic, social and political tensions.
The ads, which were purchased for $100,000 but reached nearly 150 million people on Facebook alone, have been one of the key factors which have turned the harsh glare of lawmakers onto the tech giants. After being fiercely criticized by politicians on both sides of the aisle at last November’s tech hearings, Facebook finally owned up to the seriousness of the problem in March, when it announced that it would have political advertisers in the U.S. verify who they were.
But what make this latest release so interesting is that shows the full extent of issues that the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency was willing to use to help foster a sense of division in the United States. From pro-police posts, to pro-Black Lives Matter posts to calls for Texas Secessionist rallies to posts designed for LGBTQA activists or fans of Fox News, Russia left no stone un-turned when it came to exploiting the fault-lines in America.
One of the key themes exploited had to do with racism and police brutality, with Russian trolls gleefully pumping out material designed for both Black Lives Matter supporters and those who were enthusiastic of police officers.
For example, on June 6th 2016 Russian trolls ran and ad for a “Justice for Alton Sterling” rally in Baton Rouge via the group “Don’t Shoot”. A week later they ran a pro-police ad via the Facebook page “Stop A.I. [All Invaders} which said that democrats were “encourag[ing] breaking the law.” Together, these ads cost 8,700 rubles, or $140, and gathered nearly 27,000 impressions.
Whenever there was a tragedy that involved racism, police officers, or both, Russian trolls were there to exploit it. This stretches as far back as the summer of 2015 when “Black Matters”, a group controlled by Russian trolls, ran an ad about the Charleston church shooting in South Carolina. Black Matters was revealed last October to be a Russian propaganda outlet by ThinkProgress.
Similarly, after the Dallas police shooting in July 2016, a Russian-controlled Facebook group called “Heart of Texas” — which grew to become the most popular Texas secessionist page on Facebook — posted an ad criticizing President Obama’s visit to the state, which was then shared more than 18,000 times.
Another key factor in the newly-released Russian ads were the number of them dedicated (as the Alton Stirling ad above was) to real world events and meetups, which show how the Kremlin hoped to push its disinformation campaign beyond the internet and into the real world. One of the earliest of these events, first reported by the Daily Beast, happened in August 2016 in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, where anti-immigrant rallies were organized on Facebook by Russian trolls.
“This is the next step,” former FBI agent Clint Watts told the Daily Beast. “The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something.”
Looking at the newly-released ads, it was clear that Russian trolls were trying to replicate their success in Idaho. Events publicized included an anti-Trump rally in Union Square at 12pm in New York City on November 12th, followed by a separate ad for a pro-Trump rally two hours later. There were also pro-Beyonce rallies and pro-Texas Secession rallies, as well as counter-protests to those.
Together, these ads shows the extent of social media manipulation that Russian-backed hackers inflicted on the U.S. during and up-to the election. But the ads moved beyond focusing on specific candidates to instead target the issues and controversies that would create the impression of a divided United States.
“Russia sought to weaponize social media to drive a wedge between Americans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 election,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a series of tweets. “They sought to harness Americans’ very real frustrations and anger over sensitive political matters to influence our thinking, voting and behavior.”