Facebook Identifies $100,000 In Ad Spending By Fake Accounts With Suspected Ties to Russia -- 2nd Update

By Shane Harris, , Deepa Seetharaman and Byron Tau Features Dow Jones Newswires

Facebook Inc. said it has identified about 500 "inauthentic" accounts responsible for $100,000 in advertising spending that it believes have ties to Russia, following a review of ad buying on the site in response to intelligence community concerns about Russian activity during the 2016 election.

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The findings mark the first time that Facebook has acknowledged that Russian actors may have used its platform during the presidential campaign. The conclusion is a shift from July, when a Facebook spokesman said the company had no evidence that Russian entities bought ads targeted at Americans on the platform during the election season.

The social-media giant said Wednesday that the ads it identified didn't typically reference any particular political candidate. Rather, the company review found that the ads focused on "amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum -- touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights."

Facebook officials provided their findings to House and Senate investigators looking into Russian interference in the presidential election, according to people familiar with the matter.

For months, congressional investigators have been probing potential links between Russian actors and the Trump campaign's efforts to craft messages and ads to key voters. Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said he is particularly interested in whether social media networks were used to target false or misleading stories at voters in swing districts.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he would seek further details from Facebook, particularly about how ads were geographically targeted, as the committee investigates Russian interference and whether any U.S. persons assisted in Russia's social media efforts. "I think that this report is useful as a jumping off point," he said. "I don't think by any means it's the first or last word on the subject."

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Moscow has denied meddling in the U.S. election, and President Donald Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Russia and has called the Russia controversy a "witch hunt."

Facebook has been under fire since the 2016 campaign for what critics described as its lax attitude toward fabricated news reports that claimed, for example, that Pope Francis endorsed Mr. Trump. After the election, Facebook has invested more in uprooting misinformation from its site, including partnering with outside fact-checkers to determine the accuracy of certain stories flagged by users.

Facebook said Wednesday that the ads linked to Russia ran over a two-year period, from June 2015 to May 2017. While $100,000 spent over two years is a small sum in modern politics, the revelation could prompt further questions about the scale and scope of Moscow's use of social media to distribute propaganda.

A company spokesman declined to say how many Facebook users saw or engaged with the ads purchased by Russian actors over this period.

According to Facebook, the ads took strong stances on a range of hot-button issues in an apparent effort to inflame public debate and exacerbate the divide over already contentious issues.

About one-quarter of those ads were "geographically targeted," Facebook said, without specifying where in the U.S. they ran. And of those ads, more ran in 2015 than in 2016, the company said, suggesting that the Russian efforts on Facebook were aimed broadly at fomenting discord and not engineered solely to elect a particular candidate.

That finding is also consistent with a report last January by U.S. intelligence agencies, which said that "pro-Kremlin social media actors" were part of a longstanding campaign by Moscow "to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order."

But as Election Day drew nearer, Russian propaganda efforts did turn towards hampering Hillary Clinton's campaign and trying to boost Donald Trump's chances of winning, the intelligence report found.

Facebook's findings made no mention of either political campaign. But in a report last April that didn't name Russia, the company said social media platforms were being used "to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome. These operations can use a combination of methods, such as false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion."

Beyond the 470 fake accounts responsible for the spending, the company found another $50,000 in political ad spending by accounts associated with U.S. internet addresses but with the language set to Russian. It is a violation of Facebook policy to create an "inauthentic accounts" on the platform.

The company revealed its findings in a blog post on Wednesday and said that it was in touch with U.S. investigators about the matter. Russian interference in the U.S. election is being probed by several congressional committees, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of special counsel Robert Mueller.

Political activity by foreign nations or foreign government to influence U.S. elections in broadly prohibited by campaign finance law. U.S. law also tightly restricts propaganda material produced by foreign governments for domestic audiences. Content that doesn't mention political candidates falls into a grey area.

"Foreign nationals are prohibited from giving money to federal, state and local politicians and are prohibited from spending money to influence American elections, directly or indirectly, but the reality of the restriction is that it's very complicated," said Dave Mitrani, a attorney with Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock who advises Democratic candidate and campaigns on campaign finance law.

According to the January report from the U.S. intelligence community, the highest levels of the Russian government were involved in directing the electoral interference to boost Mr. Trump at the expense of his Democratic rival Mrs. Clinton. Russia's tactics included efforts to hack state election systems; infiltrating and leaking information from party committees and political strategists; and disseminating through social media and other outlets negative stories about Mrs. Clinton and positive ones about the Mr. Trump, the report said.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com and Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 06, 2017 19:23 ET (23:23 GMT)