That was quick.
Less than a week after Facebook agreed to turn over to Congressional investigators copies of the 3,000-odd political advertisements that the company said it had inadvertently sold to a Russia-linked group intent on meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the contents of the ads have – unsurprisingly – leaked, just as we had expected them to.
Congressional investigators shared the information with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which has repeatedly allowed information about its investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russian operatives to leak to the press. Once this happened, we knew it was only a matter of time before the ads became part of the public record.
And, shockingly, descriptions of the ads provided to the Washington Post hardly fit the narrative that Democratic lawmakers have spun in recent weeks, claiming the ads – which didn’t advocate on behalf of a specific candidate, but rather hewed to political issues like abortion rights – were instrumental in securing Trump’s victory.
After initially denying the story this spring, Facebook came clean earlier this month, saying its investigators had discovered that the company sold at least $100,000 worth of ads – and possibly as much as $150,000 – to Russia-linked group that bought the ads through 470 phony Facebook pages and accounts.
WaPo reports that the ads represented issues on both sides of the ideological spectrum, which would suggest that the buyers didn’t intend to support a specific candidate, but rather their own unique agenda.
The batch of more than 3,000 Russian-bought ads that Facebook is preparing to turn over to Congress shows a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African-American rights groups including Black Lives Matter and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign.
The Russian campaign — taking advantage of Facebook’s ability to simultaneously send contrary messages to different groups of users based on their political and demographic characteristics - also sought to sow discord among religious groups. Other ads highlighted support for Democrat Hillary Clinton among Muslim women.
Of course, support for Hillary Clinton among minority groups was less enthusiastic than it was for Barack Obama, suggesting that the ads perhaps weren’t as effective as some Democratic lawmakers would have voters believe. Despite the innocuous description, WaPo insisted on reporting that the ads were meant to “sow dischord” among different voting blocs that supported Clinton. The paper of record also reported that the targeted messages “highlight the sophistication of an influence campaign slickly crafted to mimic and infiltrate US political discourse”…again without explaining exactly how they accomplished this.
These targeted messages, along with others that have surfaced in recent days, highlight the sophistication of an influence campaign slickly crafted to mimic and infiltrate U.S. political discourse while also seeking to heighten tensions between groups already wary of one another.
Yet, WaPo reports that the “nature and detail” of the ads has bothered investigators at Facebook and the Justice Department, as well as those working on behalf of the Congressional committees that are conducting independent investigations. The House and Senate Intelligence committees plan to begin reviewing the Facebook ads in the coming weeks.
Furthermore, the paper ran quotes from Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Adam Schiff, two of the most vocal proponents of the Russia election-hacking conspiracy theory (it is only a theory, after all), describing the ads as part of a sinister effort to undermine the democratic process.
“Their aim was to sow chaos,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout.”
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said he hoped the public would be able to review the ad campaign.
“I think the American people should see a representative sample of these ads to see how cynical the Russian were using these ads to sow division within our society,” he said, noting that he had not yet seen the ads but had been briefed on them, including the ones mentioning “things like Black Lives Matter.”
For a story that’s supposed to be about the content of political advertisements that are now at the center of a widely followed investigation (much like Don Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer and her entourage in Trump Tower was just a month ago), the WaPo story includes scant details about their contents. For whatever reason, the paper neglected to publish photos of the ads.
We imagine that whoever leaked the story probably figured that once readers see the ads and realize they’re indistinguishable from the rest of the political ad copy running on Facebook, voters will quickly lose interest.
However, that didn’t stop one expert from offering some helpful “context” meant to feed the hysteria without saying anything conclusive. As the paper notes, the expert quoted hasn’t even seen the ads.
While Facebook has downplayed the impact of the Russian ads on the election, Dennis Yu, chief technology officer for BlitzMetrics, a digital marketing company that focuses on Facebook ads, said that $100,000 worth of Facebook ads could have been viewed hundreds of millions of times.
“$100,000 worth of very concentrated posts is very, very powerful,” he said. “When you have a really hot post, you often get this viral multiplier. So when you buy this one ad impression, you can get an extra 20- to 40-times multiplier because those people comment and share it.”
Watts, the Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow, has not seen the Facebook ads promised to Congress, but he and his team saw similar tactics playing out on Twitter and other platforms during the campaign.
With little else to cling to, it appears that investigators – not to mention Trump’s critics - have invested so much in the Facebook interference narrative (not to mention Paul Manafort’s dealings with pro-Russian oligarchs), that admitting they were wrong would just be too damaging.