Facebook Says Russia-Linked Accounts Bought $150,000 in Ads During 2016 Election

Social media giant deletes 470 suspicious accounts it believes were intended to stir up controversy during contentious presidential election

Facebook admitted Wednesday that it sold political ads to a Russian company, known for pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, during the 2016 presidential election.

The ads, aimed at American voters, ran between June 2015 and May 2017, with distinct “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum,” the company said in a statement. Many of the ads concerned hot-button social and political issues, including LGBT, race, immigration and gun rights, and were linked to about 470 fake accounts and pages.

“Our analysis suggests these accounts and pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia,” Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said.

A Facebook official told TheWrap the accounts were traced to a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, known for pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda.

The Russian-linked firm bought $100,000 worth of digital ads. Another $50,000 went to about 2,200 accounts with U.S. IP addresses but with the language set to Russian.

The ads are part of an attack Facebook calls “information operations,” which the company considers more nefarious than “fake news.” Facebook said it has since deleted the offending accounts and says it is working to prevent new attacks in the future.

The announcement by Facebook could spark further speculation about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential race and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin.

Earlier this year Time reported that U.S. intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations and had evidence that Russia was using algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters. A Facebook official told Time the company had “no evidence of that occurring.”

As TheWrap reported in November, Trump’s campaign may have used targeted Facebook ads and innocent-seeming quizzes in the weeks before the presidential election to identify Hillary Clinton voters and discourage them from showing up at the polls.

The project, headed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, was a carefully orchestrated campaign apparatus that included a San Antonio marketing entrepreneur and social media whizz who built web pages for the Trump family’s business, and Cambridge Analytica, a data firm which had previously worked on the Brexit campaign and is backed by Robert Mercer, the billionaire benefactor behind Breitbart and Trump’s biggest donor.

That venture is now under investigation. In July, McClatchy reported that investigators were looking into whether the campaign’s digital operation, run by Jared Kushner, “guided Russian cyber operatives to specific jurisdictions in key states where support for Clinton was weak.”