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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Facebook: Accounts from Russia bought ads during US campaign

The US is investigating claims that Russia influenced the 2016 presidential elections via Facebook ads

Adam Schiff, an American democratic representative and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee,  said Facebook’s disclosure confirmed what many lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the US election had long suspected. AP / Alex Brandon
Adam Schiff, an American democratic representative and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Facebook’s disclosure confirmed what many lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the US election had long suspected. AP / Alex Brandon

Hundreds of fake Facebook accounts, probably run from Russia, spent about $100,000 (Dh367,300) on ads aimed at stirring up divisive issues such as gun control and race relations during the 2016 US presidential election, the social network said on Wednesday.

The disclosure provides a more detailed peek into what investigators believe was a targeted effort by Russians to influence US politics during the campaign which saw Donald Trump win the presidency.

The 470 accounts appeared to come from a notorious "troll farm", a St Petersburg-based organisation known for promoting pro-Russian government positions via fake social media accounts, two people familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press.

In all, the accounts purchased some 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017. While the ads did not specifically reference the election, a candidate or voting, they nevertheless allowed "divisive messages" to be amplified via the social media platform, the company's chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said in a statement.

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Facebook has turned over its findings to federal authorities investigating Russian meddling in the US election and any potential co-ordination with associates of president Trump.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Facebook briefed the panel's staff on Wednesday, but he still wants to know more.

"I have a lot more questions for Facebook, and I've got a lot of questions for Twitter," Mr Warner said, noting that "we've got Twitter coming in". He did not say when a meeting with representatives from Twitter might occur other than "soon".

Mr Warner said he also wants to know more about the content of the ads pushed out by the Russian-based internet Research Agency and whether they targeted specific voters or locations in the US.

He said in many cases the social media messaging "was more about voter depression and suppression without having to necessarily mention an individual candidate's name".

Rep Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Facebook's disclosure confirmed what many lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the US election had long suspected.

"One of the things that we're interested obviously in finding out is whether there was any co-ordination in terms of the use of those paid social media trolls or the Russian use of bots," he said.

The fake accounts were discovered during a company review of ad buys that was spurred by a broader investigation the company initiated into Russian meddling after the election, Mr Stamos said.

In addition to the 470 accounts that appeared to be run from Russia, Mr Stamos said its investigators also discovered an additional $50,000 in spending via 2,200 ads that "might have originated in Russia", even including ads purchased by accounts with IP addresses in the US but set to Russian in the language settings.

The dollar amount of ad spending identified by Facebook is an infinitesimal amount compared to the total amount of advertising spending during the election. According to ad tracker Borrell Associates, more than $1.4 billion was spent during the 2016 election cycle on digital advertising alone. That figure includes spending on national, state and local elections.

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