First published by the Washington Post and then subsequently by Bloomberg, representatives of Facebook met with congressional investigators on Wednesday, alerting them that the company had “discovered it sold ads during the U.S. presidential election to a shadowy Russian company seeking to target voters.”
The FEC, through the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), explicitly prohibits “foreign nationals” from “contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly.” Furthermore, it is also “unlawful to help foreign nationals violate that ban or to solicit, receive or accept contributions or donations from them.”
The Russian backed firm responsible for the ad sales, the Internet Research Agency, has a history of “pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda.” Indeed, the company is no stranger to so-called Russian “Active Measures.” In 2015, the New York Times documented at length a series of hoaxes launched by the St. Petersberg “troll farm” including an engineered crisis over a fake chemical leak in Louisiana. The Internet Research Agency has become so prominent and aggressive in its “Active Measures” that, in an unclassified report released in January by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community jointly concluded that the firm’s “likely financier” is a “close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence.”
The advertisement sales totaled $100,000, a relatively insignificant sum in the larger context of the most expensive election in history which totaled over $6.9 billion, including more than $1 billion on political ads alone. Despite the insignificant financial impact, this report raises a lot of potentially explosive questions. One particularly critical question is whether the Russian company acted alone or whether any U.S. persons were involved, directly or indirectly, in the planning or co-ordination of the ads.
During the height of the election season, political ads were targeted with extreme precision, even drilling down so far as specific counties. This meticulous targeting allowed for political campaigns to focus their attention on particular “swing counties” that could make a critical difference in a razor-thin election race.
Given the level of political acumen and specific U.S. voter data required to engage in such targeting, it raises the question whether the Internet Research Agency, a foreign corporation, was acting alone or received guidance or assistance from U.S. persons or companies.
Cambridge Analytica, a U.K. based data analytics company described by one former employee as “a psychological warfare firm,” was an early pioneer of so-called “microtargeting.” Having culled psychological data from Facebook, and troves of consumer information purchased from data-mining companies, Cambridge Analytica developed “algorithms that were supposedly able to identify the psychological makeup of every voter in the American electorate,” creating 7,700,545,385 microtargeting data points on nearly 200 million voters. They then “developed political messages tailored to appeal to the emotions of each one.”
With President Trump’s former Chief Strategist and chief executive of Trump’s Presidential Campaign, it is unsurprising that this is exactly the kind of precision targeting that was later used by the Trump Campaign, to “dissuade potential Clinton voters from showing up at the polls.” The Trump Campaign used their data points to identify 13.5 million persuadable voters in sixteen battleground states and then to engage in three major voter suppression operations, one targeting idealistic white liberals, one targeting young women, and one targeting African-Americans in urban centers.
The ads purchased for the Internet Research Agency, focused on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum,” primarily gun rights, immigration, gay rights and racial discrimination. Below is an example of one of the ads that Russia paid to be shown to between 23 million and 70 million people on Facebook during the 2016 election.
In this context, questions remain regarding the extent and scope of the targeting from the Russian-devised ads and whether, given the relative lack of sophistication and precise knowledge of U.S. political battlegrounds, U.S. persons were engaged with or complicit in Russian election interference.
• Russian “Active Measures” extended to direct contributions from Russian-originated companies in the 2016 U.S. general election, likely seeking to influence voter opinion.
• The FEC has laws regarding foreign campaign contributions. It is illegal for any foreign national to contribute to any federal, state, or local election in the U.S. and it is also illegal to “help foreign nationals violate that ban or to solicit, receive or accept contributions or donations from them.”
• Did any U.S. persons, knowingly or unknowingly, engage with, aid, or guide the purchase or targeting of political advertisements originating from Russia?
• Did any U.S. persons have any knowledge, prior or after the fact, of the Russian-backed political expenditures?
• What can be done by corporations like Facebook to combat murky shell-corporation-backed “dark money” from filtering into domestic political campaigns?
• In his Facebook blog post, Stamos revealed a few new details about the Russian-backed ads, including the fact that “about one-quarter” of the ads were geographically targeted. However, he goes on to say that of those, “more ran in 2015 than 2016,” and that they “did not appear to reflect targeting of political swing-states.” However, the post by Stamos does not offer further details about the specific areas that were targeted or how Facebook concluded they were not “political swing states.”
• Furthermore, Reuters also reported that according to a source, Facebook “gave its findings to Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of investigating alleged Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.” This finding was subsequently further verified by CNBC.
• Statements made by congressional representatives on September 7th, provided further validation for our inference regarding potential co-ordination between U.S. persons and Russian-backed “troll farms.” According to Natasha Bertrand, a political correspondent at Business Insider, earlier today, Adam Schiff, Democratic Vice-Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, stated that he wanted to know the “level of sophistication” of Russian Facebook ads to determine whether they had help from Trump campaign.
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