Over half of the Facebook ads bought by Russian groups during the 2016 election to sow discord and division were tied to race, according to a USA Today analysis of the more than 3,500 ads published by House Intelligence Committee Democrats on Thursday. And the closer to the election, the more race-related ad buys there were.
Democrats released ads bought by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked troll farm responsible for much of Russia’s disinformation campaign in the US, from 2015, 2016, and 2017 this week. (You can view all of the ads here.) The ads paint a picture of how Russians used Facebook to stir up controversy and play on pre-existing divisions and biases.
USA Today analyzed the ads to look for common themes and messages. Their findings: of the 3,500 ads published, about 1,950 made express references to race. They were seen about 25 million times. About a quarter of the ads dealt with crime or policing, often with a racial connotation. And the IRA would often launch simultaneous ads with divergent messages — one would encourage support for pro-police groups, and the other would mention how police treat black people.
The pace of race-related ads picked up over time. According to the analysis, racial ad buys averaged about 44 per month from 2015 through the summer of 2016. Between September and November 2016, in the months before the election, racial ad buys were at 400 per month. And the race-related ad buys didn’t stop once Donald Trump was elected — the IRA bought 900 more race-related spots from November 2016 to May 2017.
USA Today honed in on one specific campaign to explain how it worked:
A Facebook page called “Back the Badge,” landed on Oct. 19, 2016, following a summer that saw more than 100 Black Lives Matter protests, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests in August and protests over the police shootings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina.
The information analyzed by the USA TODAY Network shows the Internet Research Agency paid 110,058 rubles, or $1,785, for the Facebook spot. It targeted 20 to 65-year-olds interested in law enforcement who had already liked pages such as “The Thin Blue,” “Police Wives Unite” and the “Officer Down Memorial Page.”
The very next day, the influence operation paid for an ad depicting two black brothers handcuffed in Colorado for “driving while black.” That ad targeted people interested in Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and black history. Within minutes, the Russian company targeted the same group with an ad that said “police brutality has been the most recurring issue over the last several years.”
“When you’re stoking fear to get a negative action directed at a targeted population based on race, and when a foreign nation uses that fear to subvert and undermine democracy, that’s become a serious problem,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, told USA Today. “It’s a warning for technology companies and corporations that private citizens have entrusted with their privacy to receive factual information.”