In Lead-Up To The Election, Russia Used Facebook To Exploit Racial And Religious Divides (Video)

Did you use social media, specifically Facebook, last year leading up to the election?

Millions did. They clicked on, shared, liked, didn’t like, commented, and followed users they felt reflected their political views. (Some also lost friends along the way when the campaign became fractious.)

Like it or not, because of its impact on how we communicate today, social media is likely going to remain a viable power broker in future elections.

Especially if Russia keeps buying advertisements.

Advertisements were one of the driving factors behind what people “knew” about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-candidate Donald Trump. Evidence confirms Russian buyers used Facebook advertising as propaganda, and not just for Donald Trump. They also purchased ads supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Facebook is preparing to give Congress 3,000 Russian-purchased ads through 470 phony pages and accounts that suggest African American rights groups, like Black Lives Matter, posed a political threat, in an effort to exploit racial divisions. Facebook said at least $100,000 was spent for this purpose, a mere fraction of its political advertising during the 2016 campaign.

Exploiting Facebook’s ability to send conflicting messages to users based on their political and demographic characteristics, the Russian cyber endeavors also intended to create a rift among religious groups, such as emphasizing Muslim women’s support for Hillary Clinton.

According to a piece in the Washington Post:

“These targeted messages, along with others that have surfaced in recent days, highlight the sophistication of an influence campaign slickly crafted to mimic and infiltrate U.S. political discourse while also seeking to heighten tensions between groups already wary of one another.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said:

“Their aim was to sow chaos. In many ­cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said:

“I think the American people should see a representative sample of these ads to see how cynical the Russians were using these ads to sow division within our society.”

The House and Senate intelligence committees plan to review the Facebook ads in upcoming weeks to attempt to understand the operation and other matters related to Russia’s blatant efforts to help get Donald Trump elected president.

Facebook reaches two billion people each month. It discovered the Russian ads after fruitless months of trying to trace a disinformation campaign to Russia.

With the goal of appealing to certain audiences and alienating others, previously undisclosed ads suggest Russian operatives referenced evolving lists of racial, religious, political, and economic themes, which they used to create pages, posts, and ads to appear in users’ news feeds. Some pages even advertised events.

Religion and race were areas into which Trump supporters also delved on social media and right-wing websites, as U.S. investigators attempt to figure out whether Russian operatives and Trump campaign members colluded.

Malkia Cyril, an Oakland, California Black Lives Matter activist and executive director for the Center for Media Justice, said:

“The idea of using Facebook to incite anti-black hatred and anti-Muslim prejudice and fear while provoking extremism is an old tactic. It’s not unique to the United States, and it’s a global phenomenon. [Social media outlets] have a mandate to stand up and take deep responsibility for how their platforms are being abused.”

Facebook declined to comment on ads’ contents going to congressional investigators. Instead, it referred to a statement from chief security officer Alex Stamos, who noted the majority of the 470 accounts and pages’ ads did not specifically reference the presidential election, voting, or particular candidate.

He said:

“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.”

Initially, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed suspicions fake news on his company’s social network influenced the U.S. election.

That was until former president Barack Obama pulled him aside and communicated months-long concerns leading up the election.

In a private room at a meeting of world leaders in Lima, Peru, two months before Trump’s inauguration, Obama warned Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously.

As former FBI director James Comey asserted in his testimony to a Senate subcommittee about his firing, Russia “will be back” to interfere in future U.S. elections after Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Comey:

“Was the Russian activity in the 2016 election a one-off proposition or is this a part of a long-term strategy? Will they be back?”

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Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.