House Drops Motherlode of Russian Propaganda
House Democrats released a trove of data, metadata, Facebook ads, and Twitter accounts run out of the Kremlin’s troll farm.
The ad was highly specific—and specifically Russian.
It was for a Facebook group called Defend The 2nd. Above an image showing a cornucopia of bullets, it billed itself as “The community of 2nd Amendment supporters, guns lovers & patriots.” That was how it appeared to the public—the American public—but Facebook internally held data that told a different story.
Ad targeting information associated with Defend The 2nd showed how highly targeted it was. The location for viewership had to be within the United States. They had to be between the ages of 18 to over 65. They had to match Facebook users with interests including the National Rifle Association, Second Amendment Sisters, Gun Owners of America, Concealed carry in the United States, and Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The ad did not come from people for whom the Second Amendment applies. Payment, through the online payment service Qiwi, came in the form of 48,305.55 Rubles, or roughly $829. For that, Russia garnered over 301,000 “impressions” from Americans, with no questions asked by Facebook.
That ad was one of dozens of inflammatory Facebook and Twitter ads from Kremlin-backed fake social media accounts, including several The Daily Beast has already identified, with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Secured Borders,” and “United Muslims of America.” They were released on Wednesday, along with accompanying metadata showing their Russian provenance, not by the companies themselves, but by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Taken together, the ads and the metadata provide a deeper picture than previously known of one aspect of Russia’s so-called “active measures” disinformation campaign. Hundreds of millions of Americans – nearly 150 million, Facebook acknowledged on Wednesday – didn’t realize online political material they were seeing and sharing came from a foreign adversary. But the Russians, capitalizing on social-media targeting tools made possible by accumulated data from billions of users, knew a tremendous amount about their unsuspecting American audience.
“Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose, and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said during a hearing on Wednesday with executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Paid ads are a small fraction of Russian propaganda on social media, both the companies and their legislative overseers emphasized. Far larger was the organic content created by troll farms like Internet Research Agency—a St.Petersburg-based Russian troll farm linked to the Kremlin—and spread over Facebook, Twitter and YouTube by both identity-concealed Russians and, eventually, their American audiences themselves.
Another ad, on the Russian “LGBT United” page, featured a coloring-book portrait of a brolic-as-fuck Senator Bernie Sanders in a thong flexing his prodigious muscles in front of the White House. “You can color your own Bernie Hero!” the accompanying text read, advertising “Buff Bernie: A Coloring Book for Berniacs.”
Another Russian-sponsored Facebook group, referenced in the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier on Wednesday, was called Stop All Invaders, or Stop AI. One of its broken-English ads implored: “Burqa is a security risk and should be banned on US soil” above a photo of three blue burqa-clad women. (“Who is behind this mask? A man? A woman? A terrorist?” the ad continued.)
Many of the ads touched on immigration-related themes. One of the pages, Heart of Texas, published an ad decrying “Obama’s and Hillary’s policy” allowing “illegals” to get “amnesty” in the U.S. The post has an accompanying image which reads: “DON’T MESS WITH TX BORDER PATROL. ALWAYS GUIDED BY GOD.” The Heart of Texas page also referred to Clinton as “Killary Rotten Clinton” and promoted an event titled, “Get Ready to Secede!”
Representatives for Twitter, Facebook and Google testified on Wednesday that substantial portions of the Russian propaganda was issue-based. But several promoted Donald Trump and went after Hillary Clinton.
One of them, for a page called Donald Trump America, was an online petition demanding the “disqualification and removal” of Clinton from the presidential race on the grounds of opposing “the dynastic succession of the Clinton family in American politics.” The ad targeting indicators were: people inside the U.S. whose interests including Donald Trump, Donald Trump for President and – perhaps less obviously – Donald Trump Jr. It cost 14,606.52 rubles, slightly less than $251.
Part of the release of Facebook ads from House Democrats also included specific metadata about the reach of the ads and their specific targets.
For instance, one of the videos produced by Williams & Kalvin, a duo previously exposed by The Daily Beast as being linked to Russian propaganda, had over 15,000 ad impressions on Facebook. The video in question, about the conspiratorial Danney Williams who has posed as the son of former President Bill Clinton, was targeted to individuals with interests in “Martin Luther King Jr.,” “African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-68)” and “African-American History or Malcolm X.”
Another ad placed on Instagram by an account call “american.made” made a larger impression according to metadata provided by the committee. It was placed on the Instagram account of “tea_party_news” and targeted people with interests including “The Tea Party,” “Donald Trump” and “Donald Trump For President.” It generated 165,121 ad impressions.
Others were significantly less successful. One ad from “United Muslims of America” depicting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with a caption reading “Sanders Win With Help From Arab and Muslim Americans is No Surprise” had zero ad clicks according to the metadata and 11 ad impressions.
The Kremlin trolling operation targeted Instagram, too. One advertisement from the handle “_american.made” promoted images of Trump and encouraged people to attend rallies in general. Another, from an account called “american.veterans,” showed a photo of a grieving widow over an American flag-draped casket. The photo contained a caption which called Clinton “Killary” and referenced her comment from a hearing about the Benghazi attack: “What difference does it make?”
But they weren’t all geared toward attacking the Democratic nominee. One Facebook page, known as “BM,” promoted an event in New York City’s Union Square billed as a march against Trump. “Racism won, Ignorance won, Sexual assault won,” the ad reads.
The committee also published the 2,753 suspended Twitter handles that the social media platform believes were connected to the Internet Research Agency. Those handles, according to the committee, “impersonate[d] U.S. news entities, political parties, and groups focused on social and political issues.” A handful of the handles contained conservative buzzwords such as “patriot,” “Hillary,” and “Trump.” But most of them were a random sampling of letters and American and Russian names.
One deleted account, @PatriotBlake, is connected to a still-live Medium account with several essays, most recent of which are “Putin shows off once again and the Media likes it,” “Hillary Clinton’s Thirst For War,” and “Hillary’s War on Women.” Medium’s CEO, Ev Williams, is on the board of Twitter, which he helped create.
Multiple suspended Twitter accounts were made to look like local U.S. news outlets including PhoenixDailyNew, OaklandOnline, NewarkVoice, NewOrleansON, MissouriNewsUS, MinneapolisON, MilwaukeeVoice, OnlineCleveland, KansasDailyNews, JacksonCityPost, HoustonTopNews, ElPasoTopNews, DetroitDailyNew, StLouisOnline, DailyLosAngeles, DailyNewsDenver, DailySanDiego, DailySanFran, DallasTopNews, ChicagoDailyNew, Atlanta_Online, TodayBostonMA, TodayCincinnati, todaycleveland, and RichmondVoice.
-Additional reporting by Kelly Weill