After leaking details about the controversial “Russia ads” to the media earlier this week (a decision we presume was made to save investigators the trouble of leaking it themselves), Facebook has revealed to the Financial Times that it expects to finally turn over the more than 3,000 Russia-bought political ads to US lawmakers in the coming days.
Facebook conceded earlier this month that the ads were, in fact, purchased by a Russia-linked troll farm after initially denying the story to the press, an announcement that outraged Democratic lawmakers and members of the so-called "resistence", who eagerly proclaimed that they may have finally found the "smoking gun" to prove Russia intended to meddle in the US presidential election. The company last week promised to turn the ads over to Congressional investigators, who in turn would share them with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
However, the leaks earlier this week revealed that political messages contained in the ads fell across the political spectrum, including ads that were pro- and anti-Black Lives Matter, ads that advocated second-amendment rights, and ads that were pro-life. Lawmakers and media outlets claimed that the ads were meant to "sow dischord" in the US, without explaining exactly how political ad copy that sounds virtually indistinguishable from ads run by other political groups would accomplish this.
According to the FT, three people familiar with Facebook’s contacts with Congress said the company has already shown investigators a few “inflammatory” ads seemingly designed to stir-up passions over issues such as the right to bear arms and police brutality against African-Americans. Facebook has been rushing to try and have the ads ready for investigators by the end of the week, but there is a chance the exchange will slip into next week, the people said. The Russians ad buyers were “not Republicans or Democrats”, said one person familiar with conversations between Facebook and Congress. “Their goal was to sow division. They were very good at picking up on the fault cracks in American life. Other ads sought to tap into anti-Muslim sentiment, hoping to encourage people to “like” pages that would then deliver a stream of provocative content into their Facebook news feeds, they said.
Of course, readers should take this with a grain of salt. As one anonymous Facebook employee reportedly told the FT, the content of the ads isn't what's important (...what?).
“It’s the groups, the accounts, the pages,” said another person. “I don’t think any of us should get spun up too much around the axle on ads. The ads could be a conduit to a much broader set of content.”
Facebook indicated that it did not want to release the ads to the public because of obligations to protect user information - though it's unclear why the company couldn't just redact any sensitive information. Mark Warner, the Democratic vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, has said he wanted “to find a way” to make some public (a Washington reporter who finds him or herself in the right place at the right time might end up with a juicy scoop).
Facebook has said that Russian actors had spent at least $100,000 on roughly 3,000 ads posted on the site between June 2015 and May 2017.
In what's becoming a discouraging trend, another anonymous Facebook employee tried to explain exactly how the ads influenced the election by using a clumsy metaphor instead of concrete details.
The ads supporting gun rights, a primarily Republican cause, and Black Lives Matter, a movement inspired by police killings and more popular with Democrats, suggest a goal of stirring up issues that cause some of the most furious disagreements in America.
“The goal is not to make everyone in America believe the grass is purple,” said another person familiar with contacts between Facebook and Congress. “It’s to make some segment of the population think it’s pink, make some segment think it’s green and make some segment think it’s yellow. It’s to undermine the ability to reach consensus on everything.”
In the latest sign that the Russian ad-buy witch hunt is expanding to encapsulate all Sillicon Valley firms that sell advertising, FT reports that Twitter, another platform for political ads, is being sucked into the storm. Its representatives are set to testify to the Senate intelligence committee behind closed doors on Thursday, said an aide to Warner. Richard Burr, the committee’s Republican chairman, has said Facebook should testify in public as part of his probe into Russian election meddling. Warner said this week that the “million-dollar question” was how Russians knew who to target on Facebook with their ads.
“Did they know this just by following political news in America? Did they geo-target both geography and by demographics in ways that at least at first blush appear pretty sophisticated?”...“These are the kind of questions that we need to get answered.”
As reminder, Facebook directed the FT to its statement issued earlier this month that the vast majority of the 3,000 ads did not refer specifically to the presidential election and appeared to focus on “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum."
The bottom line is, with Congressional investigators about to receive the entire cache of ads, expect more leaks in the near future.