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What Facebook Told Congress Suggests its Russian Ad Problem Could Be Bigger Than it Looks

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg // Noah Berger/AP File Photo

Earlier this month, Facebook admitted that Russian-linked ad buyers had spent $150,000 on US political ads during the 2016 election campaign. But there could have been more ads bought than that, according to people briefed in recent days on the company’s closed-door testimony to Congress. And those ads probably also had more impact than previously assumed, because they led users to steady streams of other content.

Facebook executives appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election earlier this month and today (Sept. 21). Two people briefed on the testimony told Quartz that Facebook first started looking at whether Russian ad buyers had tried to influence the 2016 US election this spring.

Facebook’s initial search was for buyers who took out potentially political ads and either self-identified as Russian, had Russian set as their language, had a Russian IP address, or paid for the ad in Russian rubles. That search turned up 2,000 ads worth $50,000.

Afterwards, Facebook “dove in,” said one of the people briefed, further investigating the buyers it had identified in the initial search. That uncovered an additional 3,000 political ads worth $100,000, which were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm,” as Facebook disclosed this month.

Some Congress members, however, believe that the company has yet to quantify the full scope of the problem. “It is very likely there are other ads placed by Russians” that may have influenced the election, said a Congressional staffer briefed on the testimony. “It’s not that difficult to conceal your IP address by getting a VPN, and to use PayPal” to convert your payment from rubles. The $150,000 that Facebook has made public “is the low-hanging fruit,” the staffer said.

Facebook’s testimony also explained how the ads’ impact could have persisted long after the ads themselves stopped appearing. The ads weren’t all overtly anti-Hillary Clinton or pro-Donald Trump, the staffer said. Some touted gun rights, others championed secure borders, another was about liking dogs—and they all led readers who clicked on them to certain Facebook pages. If a user “liked” a page, it would send a regular stream of content onto that user’s Facebook feed.

Judging by US intelligence agencies’ January report on what Russia was trying to do, Russia’s propaganda effort was focused on “denigrating” Hillary Clinton and harming her “electability and potential presidency.” But it is impossible for anyone outside Facebook to gauge whether that’s what these pages were doing, because Facebook has since taken the pages down. The company is sharing copies of the ads and of these pages with the Congressional committee and other investigators, say the people Quartz spoke to.

Facebook’s agreeing to hand over the ads marked a “shift in tone” from the company’s last testimony, said the staffer. Previously it had refused to allow Congress to keep the materials on privacy grounds.

In response to questions about the meetings, a Facebook spokesman pointed Quartz to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s statement today. “We will continue our investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government.”

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