Facebook sold ads to fake accounts linked to Russian 'troll factory' during the US election

Facebook sold ads to fake accounts linked to Russian 'troll factory' during the US election

Facebook sold ads to fake accounts linked to Russian 'troll factory' during the US election

Updated 7 September 2017, 11:50 AEST

Facebook says an operation likely based in Russia spent $100,000 on thousands of ads promoting divisive social and political messages in a two-year period which spanned the 2016 US election.

Facebook says an operation likely based in Russia spent $100,000 on thousands of ads promoting divisive social and political messages in a two-year-period, which spanned the 2016 US election.

It comes as a Senate Judiciary Committee and special counsel Robert Mueller investigate allegations of Russian interference in the vote.

Here's what you need to know about how Facebook has been reviewing these ads and whether it will impact on the investigation.

What's going on?

Facebook said it has found approximately 470 inauthentic accounts and pages that were connected to one another and were likely linked to a Russian company.

"In reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads," Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos wrote in a blog post on Wednesday (local time).

Another $50,000 went to about 2,200 "potentially politically-related" ads and might have been bought by Russians in potential violation of US election law.

A Facebook employee said there were unspecified connections between the divisive ads and a well-known Russian "troll factory" in St Petersburg that publishes comments on social media.

What is a troll factory?

It's an organisation whose employees or members aim to control debate and stifle dissent in an online community or forum by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments.

In 2015, the ABC's 7.30 program looked into these internet trolls, a workforce of hundreds that patrol the internet at the command of the Kremlin.

The department at the centre of this effort is officially known as the Internet Research Agency, otherwise known as the Troll Factory.

"Generally, they produce lies in a 24-hour regime, seven days a week," said Andrei Soshnikov, the investigative journalist who has led the efforts to expose the Troll Factory said at the time.

Why has this only just been revealed?

The post followed a review by the company into claims that there might be a link between Russian efforts and ads purchased on Facebook.

The review also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia, including ads bought from accounts with US IP addresses but with languages set to Russian.

Facebook announced it December that it would introduce tools to prevent fake news stories from spreading on its platform, following rising criticism it did not do enough to combat the problem during the lead-up to the US election.

But as recently as June, it had been telling journalists that it had not found any evidence to date of Russian operatives buying election-related ads on its platform.

So, why didn't Facebook notice it at the time?

Well, more than $1 billion was spent on digital political ads during the 2016 presidential campaign.

That is more than 10,000 times the presumed Russian spending identified by Facebook's security team. So it's really a drop in the ocean when compared to the volume of ads they were dealing with at the time.

What were the ads about?

A small portion of these ads directly named Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, local media reports.

But the majority focused on spreading and amplifying "divisive social and political messages," including immigration, gay rights and racial discrimination.

Many of the pages were connected to each other in some way.

A Facebook official told The Washington Post that the ads "were directed at people on Facebook who had expressed interest in subjects explored on those pages, such as LGBT community, black social issues, the Second Amendment, and immigration".

Are the accounts still active?

Mr Stamos said in a statement that Facebook had shut down all of the accounts that had remained active.

It did not reveal how many of the 470 accounts were still operating or the names of any of the suspended pages, but some of them included such words as "refugee" and "patriot".

Has Facebook done anything wrong?

It appears not. Under federal law and Federal Election Commission regulations, both foreign nationals and foreign governments are prohibited from making contributions to influence a federal, state or local election in the US, local media reports.

Facebook does have a legal duty to act if it is aware of similar activity in the future, said Brendan Fischer, a program director at the Campaign Legal Centre — a Washington non-profit that advocates for more transparency.

Mr Fischer told Reuters that "whoever may have provided assistance to Russia in buying these Facebook ads is very likely in violation of the law".

The pages themselves have also violated Facebook requirements for authenticity, which has led to the suspensions.

So, will this impact the investigation into Russian interference?

It's hard to say. The findings support US intelligence agency conclusions that Russia was actively involved in shaping the election.

Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Facebook's disclosure confirmed one of the ways Russia sought to interfere in US politics.

"Left unanswered in what we received from Facebook — because it is beyond the scope of what they are able to determine — is whether there was any coordination between these social media trolls and the campaign. We have to get to the bottom of that … " he told The Washington Post.

The company has said it is cooperating with federal inquiries. Facebook said it found no link to any presidential campaign.

Three-fourths of the divisive issue ads were national in scope, and the rest did not appear to reflect targeting of political swing-states as voting neared.

What happens now?

Facebook said it would remain vigilant and try to keep ahead of people trying to misuse the platform.

"We are looking at how we can apply the techniques we developed for detecting fake accounts to better detect inauthentic Pages and the ads they may run," Mr Stamos said in the blog post.

ABC/wires