SAN FRANCISCO - Facebook says an internal investigation has uncovered $100,000 in advertising spending by hundreds of fake accounts and pages, likely operated out of Russia, which sought to sow political division during the U.S. presidential election.
The giant social network says the ads that ran between June 2015 and May 2017 carried "divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum," touching on topics such as LGBT, race, immigration and gun rights, though most of them did not directly mention the election. A small number of the ads named then Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
The ads were traced to a Russian "troll farm," a Facebook official said on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Facebook says it has shared the findings with U.S. investigators.
The ads are part of a new kind of attack that Facebook calls "information operations," a web of nefarious and insidious activities that extends far beyond "fake news." In a white paper earlier this year, the Silicon Valley company outlined how this strategy can be used to misinform the public, including the creation of networks of fake accounts to distort public sentiment.
The accounts and the pages in question have been deleted. In hunting for other suspect ads, Facebook turned up $50,000 spent on 2,200 ads it says could have been politically related.
The internal investigation into politically motivated ads began this spring after discussions with U.S. officials, the Facebook official said.
Special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are investigating whether the Kremlin meddled in the election and if that meddling had any connection to Trump’s campaign.
Mueller was named to the post after Trump fired former FBI director James Comey, who had been leading the investigation. President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have denied involvement in the U.S. election.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in January that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election to help elect Trump by spreading fake news and misinformation to sway public opinion.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Facebook report was "fully consistent with the unclassified assessment of the intelligence community."
"As part of the investigation undertaken into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, we are keenly interested in Russia’s use of social media platforms, both the use of bots and trolls to spread disinformation and propaganda, including through the use of paid online advertising," Schiff said in a statement.
Schiff said the Facebook report raises the question whether the targeting of voters "reflects any potential coordination with the Trump campaign or other U.S. persons." He also questioned whether other social networks ran Russian ads.
Widely criticized for helping spread bogus news during the election, Facebook has since conceded its network was exploited by governments and other interests intent on manipulating public opinion, including during the presidential elections in the U.S. and France.
Some 170 million people in North America use Facebook every day. Nearly half of all adults in the U.S. say they get their news from Facebook.
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, has vowed to shut down these kinds of operations. He says Facebook is devising new ways to keep fake accounts and activity off the social network. It's also exploring technological fixes that would identify bad actors as early as when the accounts are being created.
"We know we have to stay vigilant to keep ahead of people who try to misuse our platform," Stamos said.
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