126 million US citizens 'may have seen Russian Facebook posts'

Previous US election news

03/10/2017:Facebook has estimated that 10 million users in the US saw Russian-sponsored ads on its site.

Elliot Schrage, VP of policy and communications at Facebook, said that 44% of those total ad impressions were before the US elections on 8 November and 56% were after it had taken place.

"Roughly 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone," he wrote. "That's because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result."

Schrage added that for 50% of the ads, less than $3 was spent and for 99% of the ads, less than $1000 was spent.

He said: "Most of the ads appear to focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights. A number of them appear to encourage people to follow Pages on these issues."

Schrage said Facebook has decided that certain types of ad targeting will now require human review and approval since some topics can be abused.

"In looking for such abuses, we examine all of the components of an ad: who created it, who it's intended for, and what its message is. Sometimes a combination of an ad's message and its targeting can be pernicious," he wrote. "If we find any ad including those targeting a cultural affinity interest group that contains a message spreading hate or violence, it will be rejected or removed.

In a separate statement, Facebook announced it's adding more than 1,000 people to its global ads review team over the next year. It will also invest in more machine learning to better understand when to flag and take down ads.

It also wants to make advertising more transparent through a new tool allowing users to see what other ads a Page runs, including those targeted at other users. Advertisers will now need to provide more documentation to Facebook if they want to run US federal election-related ads too.

Facebook handed over 3,000 Russian-linked ads to US Congress in September as part of the ongoing investigation into political meddling. Special counsel Robert Mueller had previously analysed the adverts and argued their purpose was to spread misinformation during the election campaign. Facebook acknowledged it had received $100,000 for the adverts linked to Russia.

22/09/2017:Facebook hands over 3,000 Russian-linked ads to US Congress

After coming under fire for hosting Russian-backed advertising during the run up to the US Presidential election, Facebook has now agreed to reform its platform and to hand over 3,000 ads to the US Congress as part of its ongoing investigation into political meddling.

Special counsel Robert Mueller, responsible for investigating Donald Trump's ties to Russia, has previously analysed the adverts, arguing that their purpose was to spread misinformation during the election campaign.

Facebook has until now been reluctant to share the information with US authorities, but has since relented following an internal privacy review. The company also acknowledged earlier this month that it had received at least $100,000 in payments for adverts linked to Russia.

"I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy," said Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, in a live video discussing Russian election interference. "That's not what we stand for. The integrity of our elections is fundamental to democracy around the world."

Zuckerberg added that although it's "not realistic" to say that all political interference will be prevented, Facebook "can make it much harder" for countries to exert their influence through advertising.

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As part of the new reforms, he added that Facebook will continue its own internal investigations into election interference, and will make political advertising more transparent. Currently, the purchasing of Facebook adverts is handled by a self-service portal without a person needing to speak to anyone at Facebook, making it difficult to identify the buyer.

Over the coming months, Facebook will change this policy so that parties will have to disclose which pages paid for an advert, but users will be able to visit an advertiser's page and see the ads that they are pushing to users. To help implement this, Facebook will be doubling its team responsible for security and "election integrity", adding 250 more employees to monitor activity and improve transparency.

"It is a new challenge for internet communities to have to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that's what we must do then we will rise to the occasion," added Zuckerberg.

Facebook has worked to implement tighter controls over advertising following backlash from US political figures, including Democratic Senator Mark Warner, one of Facebook's fiercest critics, who called the decision an "absolutely necessary first step".

House Intelligence Committee Representative Adam Schiff said in a statement to the LA Times: "It will be important for the Committee to scrutinise how rigorous Facebook's internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did to discover the Russian sponsored advertisements and what else may yet be uncovered."

Although it is thought the advertisements were backed by Russia, there has yet have been any concrete evidence of ties between President Donald Trump and Moscow. However, social media is widely considered to have been an important tool for Russia for the spreading of fake news, the impact of which is being investigated by both Facebook and US authorities.

08/09/2017: Facebook discovers Russian misinformaton campaign during US elections

Facebook has found that it sold $100,000 of advertising during the US presidential campaign to Facebook pages operating out of Russia.

Alex Stamos, chief security officer at Facebook, said that the company had found approximately $100,000 spent in ads between June 2015 and May 2017. The money was associated with about 3,000 ads and linked to 470 inauthentic accounts.

"Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia," said Stamos.

He added that the "vast majority" of the ads did not specifically reference the US election, voting or a particular candidate.

He clarified: "Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus 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."

Stamos said about one-quarter of the ads were geographically targeted and more ran in 2015 than 2016.

Facebook also looked to see if the ads had originated in Russia, including searching to see if ads had been bought from US IP addresses but with the language set to Russian. In the review, Stamos said the social media giant found "approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads".

Facebook shared its findings with US authorities and The Washington Post reported that it told congressional investigators of its discovery on Wednesday. Sources told the publication that the Facebook representatives traced the ad sales to a Russian "troll farm" which has published pro-Kremlin propaganda in the past.

The publication also said the ads directly named Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, although which candidate the ads backed was not disclosed.

This news arrives as congressional investigators and special counsel Robert Mueller are probing Russian interference in the US election and seeing if the Kremlin allegedly coordinated with the Trump campaign.

In April, Facebook explained how fake news had infiltrated its platform during the US elections. It released a report detailing how it had to expand its security focus from blocking hacking, malware and spam attacks to cover other forms of misuse such as spreading misinformation.

Days after the results of the US elections were announced, Mark Zuckerberg said: "Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook - it's a very small amount of the content - to think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea."

28/04/2017: Facebook details how fake news spread during the US election

Facebook has detailed how fake news infiltrated its platform during the US presidential election campaign, and outlined how it plans to safeguard against similar attempts in the future.

The social network'sreportexplains how it has had to "expand our security focus" from just blocking hacking, malware and spam attacks, to cover "more subtle and insidious forms of misuse" - such as spreading misinformation to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.

It categorised different types of misinformation as "false news", "disinformation""information operations" - which respectively are incorrect stories claiming to be factual, incorrect content purposefully spread, and state-sponsored campaigns to distort public sentiment.

Facebook defined this last one as "actions taken by organized actors (governments or non-state actors) to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome". It said it could not categorically identify a government behind this, though the US has accused Russia of hacking its elections.

There are three main ways Facebook has observed the spread of false information happening - through targeted data collection, content creation and false amplification.

To fight targeted data collection, Facebook will provide a set of customisable security and privacy features, including notifications to specific people if they have been targeted, proactive notifications to people who have yet to be targeted but are at risk, direct communication with likely targets and also working with governmental bodies responsible for election protections to notify and educate people who may be at greater risk.

The US election

During the US election, Facebook responded to "several situations" of fake news or misinformation on its platform, and explained how hackers stole private information from people's email accounts before creating fake profiles on Facebook to share this data, creating pages to direct people to it.

"From there, organic proliferation of the messaging and data through authentic peer groups and networks was inevitable," the report read.

It also said how there was a set of inauthentic Facebook accounts which pushed "narrative and themes that reinforced or expanded on some of the topics exposed from stolen data." It added that the reach of known operations during the 2016 election was "statistically very small compared to overall engagement on political issues."

In the future, Facebook will continue to study and monitor those who spread misinformation and try to educate those who are at risk about how they can keep their information safe, it said.

It outlined that: "Just as the information ecosystem in which these dynamics are playing out is a shared resource and a set of common spaces, the challenges we address here transcend the Facebook platform and represent a set of shared responsibilities.

"We have made concerted efforts to collaborate with peers both inside the technology sector and in other areas, including governments, journalists and news organizations, and together we will develop the work described here to meet new challenges and make additional advances that protect authentic communication online and support strong,informed, and civically engaged communities".

Yesterday, MP Damian Collins called on Facebook to improve its response to fake news ahead of the UK general election.

Facebook's exhaustive report into fake news strikes a different tone to its CEO and founder's immediate reaction to allegations the social network contributed to President Donald Trump's victory.

Days after the result was announced, Mark Zuckerberg said:"Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook - it's a very small amount of the content - to think it influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea."

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.