Update (Noon ET): In an emailed statement, Google confirmed that it found $100,000 worth of questionable ads and said it's working with researchers and “other companies” on investigating abuse of its systems.
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Et tu, Google?
For the first time since Sen. Mark Warner began questioning whether Silicon Valley tech giants have been “doing enough” to root out and expose examples of alleged Russian interference in the November 2016 election, Google has reportedly discovered that Russia-linked operatives deceptively purchased tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising on YouTube, as well as advertising associated with Google search, Gmail and the company’s DoubleClick ad network, according to the Washington Post. Google operates the largest advertising platform in the world, and YouTube is the world’s largest video-advertising platform.
According to WaPo, Google’s discovery is “significant” because the advertisements in question do not appear to be from the same Kremlin-affiliated troll farm that bought ads on Facebook, which the paper says suggests that Kremlin disinformation efforts were much broader than lawmakers and Silicon Valley had believed.
As WaPo pointed out, Google had previously played down the possibility that nefarious Russian agitators could’ve slipped past the company’s sophisticated monitoring techniques. The company has been criticized for being less willing to cooperate with Congressional investigators than Facebook and Twitter.
Of course, given the scant nature of said evidence, this suggests that reports of a separate interference campaign should be taken with a grain of salt.
Google previously downplayed the problem of Russian meddling on its platforms. Last month, Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville told The Washington Post that the company is "always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies and we've seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms."
Nevertheless, Google launched an investigation into the matter, as Congress pressed technology companies to determine how Russian operatives used social media, online advertising, and other digital tools to influence the 2016 presidential contest and foment discord in U.S. society.
Like Facebook before it, the ad buys were small in size and probably not large enough to have any meaningful impact on the vote. The purported Russian agents reportedly spent tens of thousands of dollars on these ads, while the Clinton Campaign spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising.
Google declined to provide a comment for this story. The people familiar with its investigation said that the company is looking at a set of ads that cost less than $100,000 and that it is still sorting out whether all of the ads came from trolls or whether some originated from legitimate Russian accounts.
To be sure, the Google probe is still in its early stages, and WaPo suggests that there may still be more questionable ads out there. Google used data provided by Twitter to link some of the individuals operating pro-Russia twitter accounts to purchases of ads on its own platform.
Google discovered the Russian presence on its platforms by siphoning data from another technology company, Twitter, the people familiar with Google's investigation said. Twitter offers outsiders the ability to access a small amount of historical tweets for free, and charges developers for access to the entire Twitter firehose of data stemming back to 2006.
Google downloaded the data from Twitter and was able to link Russian Twitter accounts to other accounts that had used Google’s services to buy ads, the people said. This was done without the explicit cooperation of Twitter, the people said.
Google's probe is still in its early stages, the people said. The number of ads posted and the number of times those ads were clicked on could not be learned. Google is continuing to examine its own records and is also sharing data with Facebook. Twitter and Google have not cooperated with one another in their investigations.
Some of the ads expressed support for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and the Green party candidate Jill Stein. Others appear to have been aimed at fostering division in United States by promoting anti-immigrant sentiment and racial animosity.
Facebook recently handed over 3,000 ads identified as propaganda intended to disrupt the US election to Congress for review. Twitter has identified 200 "fake" accounts with pro-Russia ties, a group that includes accounts for Russia-funded English-language media organization Russia Today. And now Google has confirmed that the Russians were also active on its platform.
Since Facebook first acknowledged that a Russia-linked troll farm had been concealing its identity and purchasing ads under the auspices of fake US groups, leaks describing the content of the ads showed they targeted swing state voters, and also contained pro- and anti-Muslim and Black Lives Matter messages that were purportedly intended to provoke racist or anti-muslim sentiment, thereby “sowing dischord” in the US election process.
As the hysteria about this ostensible election meddling reaches a fever pitch, executives for Facebook and Twitter have agreed to testify before Congressional investigators on Nov. 1. Google has not said whether it will accept a similar invitation to do so.
We now wait for the deluge of outraged comments from Democratic politicians blasting Google for not doing more to screen their customers.