WASHINGTON – Facebook estimates 10 million people saw advertisements on its platform that were purchased by a group affiliated with the Russian government and were intended to influence the 2016 election.
But they weren’t geared specifically toward helping Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, according to reports.
Instead, the ads targeted Democratic strongholds like California, New York and Maryland as well as battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan. The Russians reportedly sought to sow distrust among Americans, Bloomberg reported.
“We have not come to any determination on any collusion or Russia’s preferences” in the outcome of the U.S. election, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said at a news conference Wednesday. The plan, he said, was “to create chaos at every level.”
Burr also warned that Russia will likely try to interfere in the U.S. midterm election next year.
Analysts claim Facebook downplayed the reach of the Russian ads, which were likely viewed by as many as 70 million social-media users.
Facebook explained in a statement that Russian entities spent $3 on half of the ads and up to $1,000 on single ads, using a budget of about $100,000. The social media giant released the estimate of 10 million viewers Monday, as it turned over the 3,000 Russian-funded ads to Congress.
Only 1 percent of the ads were designed for specific audiences using Facebook’s Custom Audiences targeted, Facebook maintains, while 56 percent of the ads were displayed after the election.
The company also said none of the ads targeted individuals based on “personal information such as email addresses.”
Facebook, which raked in about $9.16 billion in advertising revenue just in the second quarter of 2017, has yet to disclose the methodology it used to calculate how it estimated 10 million people saw the ads. The network admitted it’s possible the ads were seen by more than 10 million people.
Dennis Yu, founder of BlitzMetrics, an advertising agency that exclusively works with Facebook, said the Russian ads likely reached at least 70 million people because Facebook’s algorithm circulates ads based on user activity – the number of people who see an ad multiplies each time a Facebook user comments on, shares or likes the ad.
“If you can get a hot post, you can get an extra 20-to-40 times multiplier because of those people commenting and sharing it,” he told the Washington Times.
Benjamin G. Edelman, who teaches the economics of online markets at Harvard Business School, said the Russian marketing scheme was “brilliant” considering the audience it reached with such a slim budget.
“The impact is vastly disproportionate to the amount spent,” Edelman told the Times. “That is what makes this such a brilliant, if not terrible, tactic.”
A Facebook spokesperson claimed last month that the company was prohibited from releasing the ads because of “both federal law and the fact that investigations are ongoing with relevant authorities.”
American intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin intended to damage Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. However, the New York Times reported Monday, citing anonymous sources, that the Russian government’s ad campaign was designed to polarize the American electorate on multiple fronts – targeting groups from homosexual rights supporters and Black Lives Matter activists to dog lovers and gun-rights advocates.
“There was a rainbow-hued page for gay rights activists, ‘LGBT United.’ There was even a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies that spread across the site with the help of paid ads,” the New York Times reported.
Facebook refuses to publicly release the ads purchased by accounts linked to Russia during the presidential election. But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaked emails Monday that show Facebook executives plotted with the Clinton campaign for years in an effort to secure a Democratic Party victory in 2016.
It’s a federal crime for foreign powers to participate in U.S. campaigns, so the purchase has serious implications for Facebook.
On Wednesday, Burr and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on Facebook to publicly release the ads.
“I think at the end of the day it’s important that the public see these ads,” said Warner, the committee’s vice chairman.
Warner also called for more stringent regulation of online ads.
“If you see an ad on a social media site, Americans should know whether the source of that ad was a foreign entity,” Warner said, “and if you see something trending, you should know whether that trending is generated by real individuals or bots or falsely identified accounts.”