Watchdog Group Bypasses Google Controls to Buy Divisive Political Ads

Google's measures to prevent foreign actors from spreading political disinformation are not working, the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability says.

Russian Infrastructure Attack Campaign

Watchdog group Campaign for Accountability this week accused Google of not doing enough to prevent foreign actors from interfering in U.S. elections after the group was able to buy politically divisive ads on Google while posing as a Russian company known for spreading disinformation. 

In a report released Sept. 4, the CfA described how it had posed as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian   that allegedly purchased thousands of dollars worth of ads on Google in 2016 to influence the U.S. general elections. 

According to the CfA, it was able to use rubles and a Russian IP address to buy ads on Google that were very similar in content and tone to the politically divisive ads that the IRA purchased in 2016. 

The CfA said it was able to replicate the IRAs 2016 campaign using a Russian Google AdWords account established with a burner phone from Panama. The watchdog said it had used a Russian name for the account and paid for the ads via Russia's Yandex payment service. CfA said it had also used a VPN to ensure that any IP number that Google logged would appear to be from St. Petersburg, the city where IRA is based. 

The ads ran on several major US media websites and YouTube channels while Google did nothing to stop them despite all its claims about implementing controls for preventing such misuse, the CfA said. 

"The ease with which CfA was able to replicate the 2016 Russian ad campaign shows Google has failed to keep its promise to prevent foreign actors from interfering in our elections," CfA executive director Daniel Stevens said in the statement. "Google is more interested in pocketing rubles than protecting American Democracy.” 

Google did not respond immediately to an eWEEK request for comment on the CfA report. But in statements to other media outlets the company said it had implemented numerous controls, technical detection systems and a detailed mapping of accounts to prevent abuse of its channels by foreign trolls. The company claimed that such measures had limited the ability of foreign agents to spread disinformation on Google channels. 

Google also suggested the CfA campaign might have been motivated by business rival Oracle, a firm that is believed to have donated money to the watchdog group. In comments to Business Insider, the company said it had further bolstered ad systems against misuse following what Google claimed was Oracle's impersonation of Russian trolls. 

"We'd encourage Oracle and its astroturf groups to work together with us to prevent real instances of foreign abuse—that's how we work with other technology companies," Google said in its comments to Business Insider. Wikipedia defines “astroturfing” as the practice of masking the real sponsors of a political action group to make look like a true grass roots initiative. 

Oracle for its part claimed that it had no idea what Google was talking about.  "This is the first we’ve heard of this," the company said in an emailed statement to eWEEK that it attributed to senior vice president Ken Glueck. "Wish we had a ruble for every time Google blamed their problems on us." 

CfA released its report on the eve of a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on foreign influence operators using social media platforms to spread disinformation. 

In prepared comments for the hearing, Google's chief legal officer Kent Walker on Wednesday outlined several initiatives the company has taken over the past 18 months to curb the misuse of its platforms by foreign operators. 

The highlighted measures included an initiative to identify and remove groups who misidentify and mislead others such as the IRA and other Russian and Iranian-affiliated web misinformation operations. 

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.