Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have just published a trove of 3,500 Facebook and Instagram ads purchased by Russia's infamous Internet Research Agency. The ads were published with the presumed aim of influencing the 2016 election. If you're wondering whether and just how you may have been targeted (and you probably were), now you can find out for sure.
Do you like your mother, or are you a mother yourself? Do you have a position (for or against) immigration? How about LGBQT rights? Are you between the ages of 18 and "65+"?
Somewhere between 2015 and mid-2017 you were almost certainly the target of Russian advertising whose apparent goal was to ensure the election of Donald Trump as president. We've known for some time that Russia's Internet Research Agency, a sort of dark ops for all things internet, spent $100,000 on Facebook ads leading up to the election. But now we have the ads themselves, along with detailed information on how they were targeted to Facebook users.
Here's what we know so far:
Don't bother wondering if you were targeted. You were.
Ads targeted people interested in "patriotism" and "independence" but also "motherhood" and "racial equality" and "social justice." They were aimed at people in places like Baltimore and Cleveland, but also people in Pennsylvania with the job title "coal miner." It seems likely that if you use Facebook or Instagram regularly, you were a target of at least some of these ads.
But the ads are only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to buying the 3,500 ads, fake Russian accounts posted some 80,000 organic posts on Facebook and 120,000 on Instagram, the Committee says. Collectively, these posts reached 146 million Americans, so there's a very good chance you've seen them.
Maybe you've even liked or shared some of these fake Russian posts. If you want to find out, Facebook has created a handy tool that will tell you.
The point of the ads was to make Americans angry--at each other.
The Russians did a stellar job of playing both ends against the middle, perhaps calculating that in a sharply divided, belligerent America, potential Hillary Clinton voters might stay home out of disgust while undecided voters might be attracted to Trump as a candidate certain to change the status quo.
Whatever the reason, the ads were clearly designed to elicit intense emotions, with such images as Jesus arm-wrestling with Satan (who says "If I win Hillary wins,") or showing Barack Obama in Muslim garb, or same-sex marriage partners declaring that marriage is not about procreation or finances but simply about love. One shows a black man attacking a police officer with a flagpole and says "Blue Lives Matter."
In many cases, ads encouraged users to attend protest rallies or events, some of them legitimately created by innocent Facebook members, others organized by the Russians themselves. For example, after Beyoncé's performance at the 2016 Super Bowl, the Russians ran ads for a pro-Beyoncé rally and anti-Beyoncé rally at the same time and place, leaving them nothing else to do but sit back and enjoy the spectacle of U.S. citizens screaming at one another.
Many of the ads had nothing to do with politics.
Plenty of ads centered on Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or on hot-button topics such as immigration or gun control. But some of them not only did not mention the election, they had nothing to do with politics whatsoever. They seemed merely intended to engage viewer's emotions and get them to like or subscribe to pages, perhaps for later influence. For example, one showed a picture of a cat with an Oscar costume from the Muppets; another invited users to share a heartwarming image of an 86-year-old bride.
The ads were surprisingly unsophisticated.
The arm-wrestling Satan and Jesus was pretty typical of the level of subtlety found in the Russian ads. So was the cartoon of a white police officer shooting his own shadow because it was black. The ads were also full of the sorts of grammatical errors and oddities people produce when English is not their first language, for instance: "Your life matter. My life matter. Black matters." Then there was the frequent absence or misuse of the word "the," a telltale error since it doesn't exist in Russian.
But if the text for the ads both seemed amateurish, the themes that appeared in them seemed the result of elaborate study into just which issues--and which phrases--were likeliest to inflame emotions. The Internet Research Agency engaged in A/B testing to make sure its ads were as effective as possible, for instance testing the phrase "Community about black social and racial issues!" which got two clicks, against the phrase "Black Discrimination Awareness!" which received 2,592 clicks. This may explain why the Russians' extremely hokey ads were so effective at getting people to click them. Congress says it will also release the 200,000 organic posts the Internet Research Agency published on Facebook and Instagram, which should provide more interesting insights into how it manipulated American voters.
Facebook is taking steps to prevent this from happening again. It's not clear how well they will work.
In the wake of the Russian fake ads scandal, Facebook announced new rules for advertisers, aimed at preventing a new onslaught of Russian ads for the 2018 and 2020 elections. For example, the company will require political advertisers to confirm their location--but it seems likely that the Internet Research Agency could simply send some operatives to the United States to publish their posts and ads. Even Mark Zuckerberg in his post announcing the new rules admitted they "won't stop all people trying to game the system," but merely make it more difficult to do so.
Because the stakes in an American election are very high for Russia, my guess is that its operatives will figure out how to circumvent Facebook's new rules or perhaps expand their operations in other social networks. Which means that, going forward, it is everyone's responsibility to check the facts in an ad or a post, and where it came from, before sharing it on social media. If we all do that, it will be pretty hard for the Russians or anyone else to meaningfully manipulate our votes. If we don't, we'll get the elections that we deserve.