Facebook’s Chief Security Officer has admitted that thousands of politically motivated ads from fake accounts originating in Russia ran on the platform before the 2016 US Presidential election.
The Zuck trousered a hundred thousand dollars from the Kremlin’s fake news mavens, — couch cushion change for the Facebook Tsar, but undermining his protests immediately after Trump’s unexpected win that Facebook didn’t do it, nobody saw it, you can’t prove anything.
Alex Stamos, head of security at Facebook, revealed in an update on the company’s Newsroom page that after reviewing the dodgy ad buys:
“…we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”
The offending accounts and Pages have been closed.
The review found that most of the ads did not specifically reference the US ballot or the leading candidates. Instead, the stories focussed on aggravating fault lines between red and blue state demographics, often amplifying divisions over culture and identity politics such as LGBTI issues and racial conflict. Immigration and gun ownership were also popular topics for inflammatory posts.
Stamos revealed that a quarter of the ads, which often took the form of boosted stories with the appearance of legitimate media content, were geographically targeted. Tellingly, he didn’t reveal any further details of the targeting. One of the reasons Facebook has destroyed the business model of older, less agile media outlets such as newspapers is the superfine granular control it allows advertisers to exert over the targeting of their ad spend. Simple location data tweaks are among the least powerful tools at the disposal of Facebook advertisers.
The overnight update also focussed only on accounts and ads that most likely originated within Russia — which raises the possibility that much more activity has gone unmeasured, or at least unaccounted for in this statement, because the ad buyers weren’t physically located within the Russian Federation. It’s likely that many of the Kremlin’s operators were located throughout Europe and the US — indeed anywhere that Facebook allows you to sign up for an account.
Stamos points to remedial action already taken, such as the use of “machine learning to help limit spam and reduce the posts people see that link to low-quality web pages”, and downgrading the links served up by spammers whose Pages can now be blocked for repeatedly sharing fake news stories.
Having played such an important role in hollowing out the old media, Zuckerberg seemed to be in denial of the unintended consequences of Facebook’s success. He hasn’t spoken publicly about the role of his platform in potentially delivering Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate to the Oval Office, despite having toured the US recently looking very much like a future presidential candidate.
Legitimate advertisers must be asking themselves how Moscow was able to get away with it for so long, given the arcane and often arbitrary difficulties you can strike having an ad approved when all you’re trying to do is sell a book or a lecture or some craft supplies, rather than crush liberal democracy under the treads of your T-90 main battle tank.