Russian “troll farm” bought thousands of ads during US election, Facebook admits

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In a blog post, Facebook has stated that it has identified $100,000 (£77,000) of adverts shown on the platform during the 2016 US presidential election which originated from a shady Russian company with ties to the Kremlin.

3,000 adverts ran between June 2015 and May 2017 and were linked to 470 fake Russian profiles and pages that Facebook has since removed.

Facebook have said that the accounts were created by the Internet Research Agency. This innocuously named organisation has been described as a “troll farm” based in St Petersburg, which produces fake accounts on social media platforms to spread falsehoods and division and generate anti-Western propaganda.

The adverts themselves were focused on hot-button issues in the election, such as race relations, LGBT+ rights, gun control and immigration, and in some cases named presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Approximately a quarter of these adverts were geographically targeted.

In a blog post, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, described Facebook’s finding of fake accounts originating from Russian which were used to “amplify divisive messages”, and confirmed that the company had shared their findings with US authorities investigating the issue.

The blog post also said that Facebook had identified a further 2,200 adverts costing $50,000, which had possible Russian connections (for instance, the account having a US IP address, but with the language set to Russian).

Facebook’s disclosure adds to the mounting body of evidence of Moscow’s influence on the outcome of the presidential election. The FBI, CIA and NSA have concluded that this Putin-endorsed campaign was designed to smear Clinton, helping clear Trump’s run to the White House. Most significantly, the interference involved the hacking of key Democratic figures and leaking thousands of embarrassing emails.

Members of Trump’s inner circle, including his son Donald Trump Jr. and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, are under investigation for their secretive dealings with the Russian government during the campaign. President Trump has repeatedly dismissed the claims as “fake news”.

Facebook has passed on evidence to Robert Mueller, the former FBI director leading the investigation into Russian interference in the election, and has briefed the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Criticism has been targeted at Facebook for its passivity while misleading information was spread on its platform, particularly during major political campaigns. Previously, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, described the suggestion that misinformation on the platform had affected the election result as “crazy”.

In April, Facebook published a white paper outlining the company’s knowledge of attempts to misuse the social media platform to spread false information. Facebook has stated that pages which repeatedly share fake news will be forbidden from advertising on the platform. The company is trialling machine learning methods to reduce exposure to “low-quality content”, and is recruiting external reviewers to flag up questionable content.

Read Pelle Neroth’s latest ‘View from Brussels’ column, in which he considers the issues surrounding what is true or false on the internet, the impact and spread of fake news and key questions surrounding Russian involvement in the 2016 US election.

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