WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Wednesday publicly shared several of the 3,000 Facebook ads bought by Russian operatives as they sought to shape American political conversation during the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath by inflaming some of the nation’s deepest social divides.
The ads – some of which directly praise Republican Donald Trump or denigrate his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton – made visceral appeals to voters upset about illegal immigration, the declining economic fortunes of coal miners or the rising prominence of Muslims in some U.S. communities.
Some ads also explicitly called for people to attend political rallies amid a campaign season that already was among the most polarizing in recent U.S. history.
A Facebook page called “Being Patriotic” bought an ad touting a “Miners for Trump” rally in Pennsylvania, one of several key swing states.
“Mr. Trump pursues the goal of creating more jobs and supports the working class,” says the ad, which features images of miners and Trump in a miner’s protective hard hat. “He said he would put miners back to work.”
Another ad, from a Russian-controlled group called Heart of Texas, announced a rally for May 21, 2016, under the banner of “Stop Islamization of Texas.”
This crossover of online influence to real-world consequences was among the issues raised in a contentious Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee repeatedly scolded technology company lawyers for not doing more to thwart Russian disinformation.
“I don’t think you get it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose home state includes the headquarters for Facebook, Google and Twitter. “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country. We are not going to go away gentlemen. And this is a very big deal.”
The release of some of the Russian-bought ads underscored the sophistication of the Russian operation and its ability to closely mimic U.S. political discourse.
One ad, also bought by the Heart of Texas group, took particular aim at veterans and others concerned about military issues, saying, “Hillary is the only one politician (except Barack Obama) who is despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans.”
Another Russian-bought ad cited in the hearing by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking Democrat on the committee, was from a phony group called “Army of Jesus.”
It showed Clinton dressed as Satan, with red horns and boxing gloves, appearing to punch Jesus, who also was wearing boxing gloves as well as a determined glare as heavenly light appeared above him.
“‘LIKE’ IF YOU WANT JESUS TO WIN!,” the ad said, using the terminology of Facebook as its tries to get users to publicly declare their interest in groups, events or products. People who hit “like” buttons on Facebook can later be shown other ads.
Lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter, though all denounced the Russian campaign, also said the Russian content amounted to a tiny part of the overall flow of content on their platforms. But senators from both parties repeatedly sought to make clear how important they believed the online influence campaign was during the 2016 vote.
“If you look back the results,” Warner said, “it’s a pretty good return on investment.”
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the lawyers, “This isn’t about re-litigating the 2016 U.S. presidential election. . . . This isn’t about who won or lost. This is about national security. This is about corporate responsibility. And this is about the deliberate and multi-faceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power.”
The hearing comes on the heels of revelations that the reach of the Russian-connected disinformation campaign on Facebook, Google, and Twitter was much larger than initially reported. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have seen content produced and circulated by Russian operatives, and Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said Wednesday that 20 million more may have seen such content on Instagram, which Facebook owns.
Technology lawyer Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said that in turning over the ads companies were entering complex legal territory. Ads have long been considered private data on par with email content and other records that the government must have a search warrant to obtain, he said.
This includes ads published by foreign governments or even terrorists. The tech companies, he said, had likely made the calculation in this case that the risk of subjecting themselves to the ire of lawmakers and potential regulation was worse than the risk of being sued by Russians, but the negative consequences of that choice would be felt down the road.
“These are huge mistakes with consequences that far outweigh the benefits because they make us feel better about how Russians interfered in the election. It turns the platforms into agents of the U.S. government to decide what people should like or not like, read or not read. This is bad policy in the U.S. and even worse abroad.”