Facebook only just turned over copies of the 3,000 “Russia ads” to Congressional investigators, but company insiders have been dribbling out descriptions of the advertisements to overeager media outlets for weeks now. And while images of the ads (to our utter surprise) have somehow not yet leaked, that could soon change as top Democrats on both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are demanding that the entire cache of ads be released to the public. But to tide the public over then, Facebook officials have shared images of memes reportedly published by Facebook groups that were fronts for Russia’s “sophisticated” attempts to sow discord among US voters.
Last week, the Daily Beast published 11 memes gleaned from a Facebook group purporting to represent the “United Muslims of America.” In reality, which Facebook was in reality a front for Russian propagandists. While the group reportedly paid for some of the 3,000 “Russia ads”, these images were freely published on the group’s Facebook page and widely shared by users.
One of the memes claimed that Hillary Clinton had admitted that the US was responsible for arming ISIS and Al Qaeda. Another claimed that Senator John McCain founded ISIS. A third suggested that Osama bin Laden was a CIA agent.
And today, Bloomberg published a roundup of various descriptions of the Russia ads that have been offered by different media outlets. As Bloomberg reported, Russia-backed Facebook groups also paid for ads bearing anti-Muslim messages (though Bloomberg offered only descriptions, not images, of these ads). Another front group published at least one paid ad that appeared in late 2015 or 2016 purporting to speak for Black Lives Matter. That ad was targeted to reach audiences in Ferguson and Baltimore, where protests against police violence have taken place.
Circling back to the memes published by the ostensibly pro-muslim Facebook group, a surprising number criticized US involvement in Syria. This suggests that, contrary to claims that the ads were intended to influence the November election, the Russia campaign may have been intended to influence US opinions on specific issues, not the presidential candidates themselves. It has been widely reported that the ads didn't offer support for a specific candidate, but were focused instead on the issues.
Bloomberg reports that the ads could be read two ways: as supporting the aims of Black Lives activists or sowing fears that they could threaten residents of Baltimore and Ferguson.
Another ad linked to Russian groups features an armed black woman “dry-firing” a rifle, Bloomberg reported, citing a story in the Washington Post. Experts who spoke with WaPo conjectured that the ad was meant to stoke fears about black militancy among white voters. Another image depicted Hillary Clinton behind bars, an echo of calls from Donald Trump and his supporters during the campaign to jail the Democratic candidate.
A Facebook page featuring a rainbow symbol said it spoke for a group called LGBT United and declared: “We speak for all fellow members of LGBT community across the nation. Gender preference does not define you. Your spirit defines you."
Another Moscow-linked group called Secure Borders took aim at immigrants. One meme published by the group showed Trump wearing a Santa costume and saying: “We are going to say Merry Christmas again!” The ad targeted Americans opposed to political correctness and multiculturalism.
Which begs the question: are a handful of poorly crafted memes enough to sway voters in swing states, or was this Russian "propaganda" drive not quite as “sophisticated” as the mainstream media would have you believe?