SAN FRANCISCO — Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released thousands of Russian Facebook ads on Thursday, offering the public its first in-depth look at the troubling messages used to heighten tensions among Americans during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The release of the ads, which Facebook says were purchased by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency to sway public sentiment, comes as the giant social network races to tighten restrictions on political ads to head off manipulation of upcoming elections, including this fall’s hotly contested midterms.
Pressure has intensified since the Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies in February, exposing a wide-ranging effort to subvert the election and to support the Trump campaign.
Facebook pages with points of view that span the political spectrum from “Blacktivist” to “Heart of Texas” bought ads. Some of the more than 3,000 ads denounced Donald Trump, others his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
Many of the ads, placed by Russians posing as Americans, didn’t endorse a specific candidate but spread inflammatory messages on sensitive subjects such as immigration and race to amplify fault lines in American life, targeting users from specific backgrounds and tight races in key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.
These negative appeals included a group called Fit Black, which urged people to attend “Black Fist Free Self-Defense Classes.” Another from the Army of Jesus encouraged voters to pick a president with “godly morals” with a picture of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan.
The Facebook ads varied in their effectiveness and reach, with some only being shared a few hundred times, others seen hundreds of thousands or more than 1 million times. They ran just over two years starting in June 2015, increasing in volume in October and November 2016, just before and after the presidential election, but also showing spikes in April and May of 2016 and also April and May of 2017.
Patterns quickly emerge in sampling the ads. Many of the hundreds of ads placed in April 2016 targeted racial divisions in American society, encouraging African-American political activism by imitating the language and messaging of the Black Lives Matter movement with posts highlighting racist incidents and others the resilience and beauty of the African-American community.
A smaller contingent that month targeted conservative Facebook users. Festooned with American flags, they sounded patriotic themes including reverence for the constitution. Still others contained calls for Americans to “take care of our vets, not illegals.”
Facebook says it has taken a much more aggressive stance on political and issue ads, forcing people who buy them to verify their identity and location and to reveal publicly who they are.
Until September, when it identified 470 accounts that purchased 3,000 ads for more than $100,000 over a two-year period, Facebook repeatedly denied the Russians exploited its platform. In fact, Russian operatives availed themselves of the precise nature of the ad targeting offered by Facebook, zeroing in on categories of Facebook users, such as gun lovers, Trump supporters, residents of certain places, and more. They also took advantage of Facebook’s computer algorithms, which at the time favored sensationalist posts that drive more reaction.
Ten million Americans saw the ads, Facebook estimates, and 146 million Americans, or nearly half of the U.S. population, may have been reached by content from Russian operatives such as status updates and videos on Facebook and Instagram, also owned by Facebook.
The extent of election meddling put Facebook on the defensive and served as a wake-up call for Facebook users, who for years allowed the culling of their personal information in exchange for the free service without much thought to what happens to that data, let alone whether an adversarial foreign power could exploit it to provoke outrage over polarizing issues from gay rights to gun rights.
After Facebook handed over the ads to Congress, lawmakers made dozens of them available to the public. House Intelligence Committee leaders pledged at the time to provide all of the ads to the public to increase awareness of the Russian manipulation.
With the spotlight on upcoming midterms in the U.S. and other key elections around the globe, Facebook says it’s moved aggressively to prevent foreign interference and anticipate new tactics to undermine the integrity of the electoral process.
Political ads will be labeled and Facebook users will be provided more information about them, such as who paid for them. Facebook users will be able to see who placed an ad and some information about those users who saw the ad, as well as view other ads run by the same page. That includes the hot-button social issue ads.
Facebook also reduced the ad targeting capability, removing nearly one-third of the terms used by the IRA, some because they weren’t often used, others because Facebook says they didn’t reflect Facebook’s “principles.”
It’s a major turnabout for Facebook, which for years resisted complying with federal ad disclosure rules that apply to other types of media. Pressured by lawmakers, Zuckerberg promised last year to take steps to deter foreign governments from using Facebook to manipulate elections and to increase disclosure in political ads. Zuckerberg now says he supports a bipartisan Senate bill, the Honest Ads Act, which would bring political advertising on social media more in line with what is required on television and radio.
Since the 2012 presidential election, political campaigns are increasingly using Facebook to target particular voters in a more precise, cost-effective way. Yet the social network is not currently required to follow any of the campaign finance laws that apply to other media.
“Going forward, we’re going to address this by verifying the identity of every single advertiser who’s running political or issue-oriented ads to make it so that foreign actors or people trying to spoof their identity or say that they’re someone that they’re not cannot run political ads or run large pages,” Zuckerberg said during last month’s testimony on Capitol Hill.
Ridding Facebook of election meddling is part of a widening campaign to rebuild consumer trust after the personal information of 87 million users was harvested by Cambridge Analytica without their permission.
Cambridge Analytica capped a tumultuous period for Facebook, which has been dragged down by one damaging revelation after another, from the proliferation of fabricated news and hoaxes to violence on its Live streaming service.
In February, special counsel Robert Mueller filed criminal charges against 13 Russian nationals and three businesses for a wide-ranging effort to undermine the presidential election, including actions aimed at boosting Trump’s campaign. Federal law bars foreign interests from making campaign contributions or otherwise working to influence U.S. elections.
The charges included conspiracy, identity theft, failing to register as foreign agents, and violating laws that limit the use of foreign money in U.S. elections. One of the companies that was charged was the Internet Research Agency, which prosecutors accuse of waging “information warfare” against the United States with the goal of “spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system.”
Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and possible obstruction of justice by the president. In addition to Mueller’s probe, three congressional committees have been conducting their own Russia investigations.
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees have investigated Russia’s manipulation of social media, which the Kremlin continued even after the 2016 election.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is continuing its investigation, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has been conducting a more limited probe.
Republicans on the House Intelligence committee recently concluded their investigation, finding no signs that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. The panel’s Democrats are continuing to investigate on their own.
Last fall, representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared before two intelligence committees to talk about Russia’s manipulation of their platforms. A sampling of Facebook ads paid for by the Internet Research Agency were released at those hearings, but the bulk of the ads had to be scrubbed of personally identifiable information before they could be publicly released.
The Democrats said they decided to release the Facebook ads Thursday because they had promised to make them public over the objections of Republicans.
Late last year, Zuckerberg told USA TODAY he was not sure if Facebook could prevent the problems of the 2016 presidential campaign from recurring in this year’s elections.
“We have a pretty good track record as a company of — once we set our mind to doing something, we eventually get it done,” the Facebook CEO said in November. But, he conceded, “I don’t know how long it will take to address this.”
In April, Zuckerberg, who initially dismissed the idea that misinformation on Facebook played a role in the outcome of the presidential election, said: “We’re committed to getting this done in time for the critical months before the 2018 elections.”