Earlier in September we reported on a series of political advertisements hosted by Facebook during the 2016 election which the social network discovered were ultimately backed and paid for by a “shadowy Russian company seeking to target voters.” The ads, which were likely in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) which explicitly prohibits “foreign nationals” from “contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States,” cost approximately $100,000 and had a potential reach of 73 million people.
Facebook concluded that the Internet Research Agency, an online “troll farm” that engages in online influence operations on behalf of the Russian government, was the source of the advertisements. The Internet Research Agency has a history of “pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda.” In an unclassified report published in January, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the Internet Research Agency’s “likely financier” is a “close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.”
Politico is now reporting on a new development in regards to the Russian-backed Facebook advertisements including specifics about who they targeted and what they espoused. Politico claims that the “Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was the beneficiary of at least one of the Russian-bought political ads,” while other ads “paid for by shadowy Russian buyers criticized Hillary Clinton and promoted Donald Trump.” Furthermore, according to their source familiar with the matter, “some backed Bernie Sanders and his platform even after his presidential campaign had ended.” Politico adds that “there is no indication Stein, Sanders or Trump [were] aware of the advertisements.”
Previously, it had been reported that the ads did not back or attack specific candidates but rather only focused on specific divisive social and ideological issues like LGBT rights, immigration, gun rights, and racial discrimination. This new development further undermines the claim that Russian interference had no specific political goal other than sowing division, as the candidate specific ads were specifically targeted to both damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and boost her rivals. However, Politico notes that the ads “didn’t necessarily hew to promoting Trump and bashing Clinton,” but rather “create divisions while sometimes praising Trump, Sanders and Stein.”
A number of the ads “seemed to question Clinton’s authenticity and tout some of the liberal criticisms of her candidacy.” One advertisement that Politico obtained read, “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me. It’s not a wasted vote. … The only way to take our country back is to stop voting for the corporations and banks that own us. #GrowaSpineVoteJillStein,” likely a nod towards Clinton’s perceived friendliness to Wall Street.
The Daily Beast previously reported on the type of content posted on the online communities and Facebook pages which Russia sponsored. The image above, sourced from one of these pages, and content like it are examples of the tone and message that the politically charged advertisements likely used as they “micro-targeted” key swing districts in an attempt to sway the election.
Whether or not they succeeded in their effort to alter the results of the election may be an impossible question to answer, but given recent decline in faith in government and attitudes towards partisanship, the Kremlin has certainly succeeded in sowing division and distrust.
• Russian-backed Facebook advertisements specifically favored certain candidates, boosting Jill Stein, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders, even far after the latter was no longer running for President of the United States. Previously, it had been reported that the advertisements only focused on divisive social and ideological issues like LGBT rights, immigration, gun rights, and racial discrimination.
• The latest report is yet another confirmation of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that beyond their goals in undermining confidence in the election, the Russians also sought specifically to damage Secretary Clinton’s campaign and, if possible, to sway voters towards Trump.
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