Facebook says Russian ‘troll farm’ spent $100,000 on ads leading up to election

Facebook announced Wednesday that they discovered about $100,000 worth of political ads purchased over the last two years by fake accounts that “likely operated out of Russia.” Facebook reps informed congressional investigators of the discovery on Wednesday as well.

“In reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies,” Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos wrote in a blog post. “Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”

Stamos also says that most of the ads weren’t necessarily for or against any particular candidate, but “rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum.” Another Facebook official said some of the accounts appear to be connected to a well-known “troll farm” run out of St. Petersburg.

Faccebook has been singled out among social media sites for amplifying “fake news” stories, which some are convinced helped tip the election in Donald Trump’s favor. Facebook’s announcement does appear to fit with the overall conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, leading some to feel vindicated. From The Washington Post:

Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has studied Russian online influence campaigns, said Wednesday that Facebook’s report served as “validation” for findings by him and his researchers, who he said had spotted what they believed to be Russians posing as Americans to press political messages on Facebook as early as 2015.

He said his analysis showed that Facebook ads in 2015 were largely concerned with divisive social messages and were used to identify other Facebook users most susceptible to messaging. Those users were then targeted with election-oriented ads in 2016, he said.

It’s worth noting that $100,000 worth of ads over a two year period is nothing compared to what actual political campaigns spend. It seems absurd to think a few nonspecific ads here and there on Facebook were enough to throw the election to a candidate who was polling as far behind their opponent as Trump was with Clinton. A bigger question is whether or not any laws were broken.

“It is unlawful for foreign nationals to be spending money in connection with any federal, state or local election, directly or indirectly,” Federal Election Commission member Ellen Weintraub told Reuters. Green card holders are exempt from this rule.

Facebook didn’t reveal any real info on the specific accounts or ads it uncovered, however, so assessing the legality of what went down from the outside is pretty much impossible at the moment.

[Washington Post | Photo: Getty]