Russian Facebook accounts bought ads during US election

RSTV Bureau
FILE: Hemptstead : Then Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles as then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. AP/PTI

FILE: Hemptstead : Then Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles as then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. AP/PTI

Hundreds of fake Facebook accounts, probably run from Russia, spent about USD 100,000 on ads aimed at stirring up divisive issues such as gun control and race relations during the 2016 US presidential election, the social network said.

Although the number of ads is relatively small, the disclosure provides a more detailed peek into what investigators believe was a targeted effort by Russians to influence US politics during the campaign, this time through social media.

The 470 accounts appeared to come from a notorious “troll farm,” a St. Petersburg-based organization known for promoting pro-Russian government positions via fake accounts, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

The people were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorised to publicly discuss details of the investigation.

In all, the accounts purchased some 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017. While the ads didn’t specifically reference the election, a candidate or voting, they nevertheless allowed “divisive messages” to be amplified via the social media platform, the company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said in a statement.

Facebook has turned over its findings to federal authorities investigating Russian interference in the US presidential election. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is charged with overseeing Russian meddling in the US election and any potential coordination with associates of President Donald Trump.

Sen Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Facebook briefed the panel’s staff on Wednesday, but he still wants to know more.

“I have a lot more questions for Facebook, and I’ve got a lot of questions for Twitter,” Warner said, noting that “we’ve got Twitter coming in.”

He did not say when a meeting with representatives from Twitter might occur other than “soon.”

A spokeswoman for Twitter declined comment Wednesday evening.

Warner said he also wants to know more about the content of the ads pushed out by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency and whether they targeted specific voters or locations in the US.

He said in many cases the social media messaging “was more about voter depression and suppression without having to necessarily mention an individual candidate’s name.”

Rep Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Facebook’s disclosure confirmed what many lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the US election had long suspected.