Facebook Will Tell Congress that 126M Users Saw Russian Ads

Substantially more exposures than the social network had previously disclosed about the reach of the online influence campaign that was designed to promote anger and insults among social network users with varying political points of view.

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Three of the largest advertising companies in the world--Facebook, Twitter and Google--will testify before Congressional investigators Oct. 31 to answer questions about the roles their networks played in distributing false, misleading and politically provocative ads and other editorial material during the 2016 presidential election.

The Washington Post reported Oct. 30 that Facebook will tell U.S. representatives that a whopping 126 million of its 2.2 billion users may have viewed content produced and posted by Russian operatives who were intending to sow discord and divisiveness among American voters.

This is substantially more exposures than the social network had previously disclosed about the reach of the online influence campaign that was designed to promote anger and insults among social network users with varying political points of view.

In mid-September, Facebook turned over its first group of advertising records to special investigator and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who is investigating interference in the election by Russian operatives.

Many More Exposures than First Disclosed

It was reported at that time that a Russian troll farm had bought about $100,000 worth of ads that may have been seen by 10 million people--mostly in midwest and eastern states that were seen as critical to the success of the victorious Donald Trump campaign.

The president and his campaign officials have denied colluding in any way with the Russians.

Republican Trump won the 2016 election by winning more states than Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, even though Clinton won the overall tally by more than 3 million votes. All 17 U.S. security agencies have agreed that there is proof that Russian operatives endeavored to manipulate public sentiment and cause discord during the 2016 campaigns.

The Post said that Facebook now will testify Oct. 31 that a lot more ads were bought by Russian-controlled accounts--more than 10 times the first estimate.

The inflammatory material that appeared on the Facebook, Twitter and Google networks was not all paid advertisements. Russian trolls also created free member-type pages aimed to cause racial discord; a well-publicized campaign entitled "Don't Shoot Us" featured a series of violent videos alleging police brutality against black American citizens clearly designed to anger readers.

Facebook Quiet About Free Content

Facebook has been quiet about the spread of this free content, despite the fact that several independent researchers believe that it was seen by far more users than the ads were.

The troll farm, called the Internet Research Agency, employed hundreds of employees who post pro-Kremlin content, most of it fake or discredited, under the guise of phony social media accounts that posed as American or European, according to researchers.

Google said in a blog post Oct. 30 it has found 1,108 videos uploaded to its YouTube video site that were viewed a total of 309,000 times in the U.S. from June 2015 to November 2016--posted by accounts linked to Russian operatives.

The videos encompass 43 hours of content from 18 different English-language accounts, it said. In addition, Google said two accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency spent $4,700 on search and display ads during the 2016 elections.

Twitter plans to tell Congressional investigators that it has identified 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian operatives and more than 36,000 bots that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election, according to a draft of Twitter's testimony obtained by The Post. The company previously reported 201 accounts linked to Russia.

Network 'Doing All It Can' to Help Investigators

Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said in a statement to The Post that the company is doing everything it can to assist investigators.

“By publicly describing our understanding of information operations in April, and by fully cooperating with the various investigations into Russian interference, I'm confident that we are doing everything we can to be helpful and contribute our piece of the broader picture,” Stamos said.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...