Facebook admitted this week that a Russian propaganda mill used the social-media giant's ad service for political operation around the 2016 campaign. This came out when sources revealed to The Washington Post on Wednesday that Facebook was grilled by 2016 Russia-Trump congressional investigators behind closed doors Wednesday. US lawmakers are furious.
Putin's propaganda farm bought around $150,000 in political ads from at least June 2015-May 2017; Facebook was compelled to share the information and will be cooperating with ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The troll farm in question is the Internet Research Agency, a well-funded, well-established, nimble, English-speaking, pro-Putin propaganda unit, and the ads are in all likelihood illegal.
What this week's revelations about Facebook mean is that Facebook ads are now undeniably a form of political campaigning, one with no checks and balances. And people have been taking advantage of this, big time.
The total money spent (that Facebook would admit to) was allegedly responsible for around 3,000 ads, with the potential to reach millions of people. Facebook isn't saying how many people actually saw them.
There were an additional 2,200 ads Facebook said it suspected were also Russia-backed; the company has avoided making a positive statement. It's arguable that the world's biggest surveillance platform has the data to connect the dots; it simply isn't doing so for this problem.
Facebook maintains that it is not culpable, only that the buyers violated Facebook's "inauthentic accounts" rule. The Washington Post wrote:
Facebook discovered the Russian connection as part of an investigation that began this spring looking at purchasers of politically motivated ads, according to people familiar with the inquiry. It found that 3,300 ads had digital footprints that led to the Russian company.
Facebook teams then discovered 470 suspicious and likely fraudulent Facebook accounts and pages that it believes operated out of Russia, had links to the company and were involved in promoting the ads.
The language that Facebook "discovered" this is disingenuous. As if it had no way of monitoring its ad program, and a Russian troll farm blasting propaganda were akin to finding a coin purse someone left under a cushion. Whoa! Who knew, or had any way of knowing? Well, Facebook did.
Pretending otherwise is fool's errand; no one could be that incompetent at running advertising and metrics and simultaneously have the entire industry in a chokehold.
Blaming fake accounts
Facebook is working hard and fast to minimize everything about this.
Facebook's minimizing of the problem and pretending it's now fixed -- by deleting a few fake accounts -- is like minimizing gangrene. As if the accounts belonging to Putin's Internet Research Agency are a just tiny speck of bad actors and now they're gone, so phew, rest easy, everyone.
The primary talking point is that the accounts have been removed because, by gosh, they violated Facebook's rules. They "misused the platform" by making fake accounts. Not by actively working against the company's alleged values around diversity. Or by making racists more racist and fascists feel like they're so validated that stabbing immigrants to death or mowing anti-racism protesters down with a car is not just a good idea, but the right thing to do.