Congress Releases 3,000 Russian Ads Found on Facebook

Members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee have released thousands of Russia-linked Facebook ads, providing a closer look at how outside actors used the platform during the 2016 presidential election and who they targeted.

While it’s been more than six months since Facebook and other social platforms including Google and Twitter revealed they had found evidence of Russian interference, the more than 3,000 ads released today by House Democrats show specifics about the ad buys.

The data about the ads includes the text, the targeting parameters—location, age range, placements and interest graph—and total impressions. Each file also showed total ad spend, along with the date each ad was created and when it stopped running.

The ads, bought by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA), date back to 2015 and seem to have targeted users with a vast array of interests and demographics. For example, one bought in August 2017 was about U.S. border security, targeting people who identified as “very conservative” and that liked a variety of conservative-leaning pages. Another that included the text “Bernie For President!” was targeted at adults who expressed interest in liberalism or libertarianism. Others focused on controversial issues rather than candidates.

While the trove of information is likely to help paint a more detailed picture, it doesn’t include the 80,000 pieces of organic content shared on Facebook by the IRA. However, a statement from the committee said members expect to release that information as well in the future.

“Since our open hearing in November 2017, we have worked closely with Facebook to ensure that the American people can see the full extent of Russia’s malign use of social media,” U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intel committee, said in a statement today about the ads. “The only way we can begin to inoculate ourselves against a future attack is to see first-hand the types of messages, themes and imagery the Russians used to divide us.”

The release comes the same week Facebook announced plans to begin rolling out its previously announced policy changes for political ad buys. The new changes will require political ad buyers to both verify their identity and location along with new labeling that shows the ad is political in nature.

In a press release published today by Facebook, the company provided additional context to how it’s trying to improve the platform while also admitting “this will never be a solved problem because we’re against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries.”

In response to the ads being released, Meredith McGehee, executive director of the nonpartisan political reform nonprofit Issue One, called on Congress to pass legislation that would require online advertising to be more transparent. She mentioned the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill that would require the largest internet companies to disclose all political ad buys. (So far, the bill hasn’t gained much traction, and political advertisers and strategists don’t expect it to this year.)

“If online ad disclosure requirements had been law, we would have already seen these ads in near real-time and that some were paid for in rubles,” she said. “And law enforcement officials would have seen they were illegal because spending foreign money in U.S. elections is illegal. The bipartisan Honest Ads Act would directly address this loophole.”

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