The scale of Russian efforts to fuel discord and resentment among US voters during the 2016 US election was far greater than previously disclosed, according to multiple reports surfacing on the eve of congressional testimony by top tech companies.
Facebook alone now believes that roughly 126 million Americans on its platform may have been exposed to propaganda generated by the Internet Research Agency – a so called “troll farm” with known Kremlin ties. Facebook previously said that only 10 million Americans had been reached. But that estimate was narrowly focused on roughly 3000 advertisements purchased by 470 accounts and did not account for posts that reached users organically.
What’s more, Twitter has now reportedly identified and removed more than 2750 accounts tied to the Russian influence campaign – a considerable hike from the 201 previously disclosed.
Google, meanwhile, announced today that it found 18 YouTube channels likely tied to the Internet Research Agency, which Google said produced a total of 43 hours of content. The videos received roughly 309,000 views between June 2015 and November 2016. Only three per cent of the videos reportedly gathered more than 5000 views.
The flood of figures arrives on the evening before attorneys for Facebook, Twitter and Google are set to appear before a Senate Intelligence Committee, where they face questions about how the company’s platforms were allegedly used by Russian entities to influence American voters. The content unearthed so far appears geared overwhelmingly toward magnifying societal divisions among voters. Issues of race and religion, for example, often played a prominent role.
In written testimony leaked to CNN and other outlets, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch calls the content “deeply disturbing”, and notes that it appears focused on “divise social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun writes”.
The House Intelligence Committee previously requested Facebook’s help in removing personal data from 3000 Russian-bought ads, and will reportedly release them publicly this week.
At least one of the Facebook pages tied to the Internet Research Agency passed itself off as an existing American Muslim organisation. Several of the alleged ads were intended to convince users that then-candidate Hillary Clinton was directly responsible for founding the terrorist organisation ISIS – mirroring an allegation Donald Trump made on the campaign trail. It was further revealed this month that Russian trolls used Facebook to recruit American activists, encouraging them to organise Black Lives Matter rallies and take self-defence classes.
In response to the ads, which constitute only one branch of the influence campaign, US lawmakers have introduced twin bills in the House and Senate aimed at regulating online political advertisements – measures Facebook in particular has openly opposed in the past. The legislation, known as the Honest Ads Act, would attempt to align rules governing online ads with those broadcast on television and radio.
Many provisioned outlined in the Act, however, are being preemptively enforced by the companies under new policies announced this month. In the past week, both Facebook and Twitter have unveiled new disclosure requirements around ads, and say they will be adding special distinguishing features to those containing political content.
One of three US senators to cosponsor the Honest Ads Act, Sen Mark Warner praised the new self-imposed rules on Twitter as a “good first step”, adding: “Online political ads need more transparency and disclosure.”