What’s really important about Facebook Russia Ads

Yes, a shadowy Russian firm with ties to the Kremlin bought about $100,000 worth of Facebook ads intended to sway voters during last year’s presidential campaign, the social media giant disclosed earlier this month.

Does it matter? Given the tens of millions spent on political ads in 2016 that’s a bucket of water thrown down a storm drain. And influencing elections with ads is a delicate science. It requires coordination, timing, and finesse – three things the Russian ad buy doesn’t seem to have had.

The problem is, those Russian-bought online spots might be just a hint of a darker, undetected flood of attempts at influence, according to experts in political communication. To use a different analogy they might be the equivalent of the Watergate break-in. That was a petty crime that by itself didn’t sway the 1972 election. Its real importance was rooted in the vast, illegal conspiracy of which it was a symbol and product.

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Thus despite the small size of the Russian Facebook ad buy, “it’s really important to American politics,” says David Karpf, an associate professor in George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, making the comparison with Watergate.

Facebook revealed the ad buy in question in a blog post from its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, on September 6. Congressional investigators had been pressuring the firm to look more closely at the possible relationship between its online ads and what US intelligence concludes was a Russian attempt to interfere in the 2016 vote.

Between June 2015 and May 2017, 470 “inauthentic” accounts and pages associated with each other and likely operated out of Russia bought about 3,000 ads, wrote Mr. Stamos. About one-quarter of the ads were targeted to a specific geographical area.

Most of the ads did not directly mention a candidate or the election. Instead, they focused on amplifying divisive social and political messages, concluded Facebook. 

A COMMON APPROACH

That’s now a common Kremlin approach. Consider Facebook’s smaller rival Twitter. On Sept. 19, the top trending topic from accounts and bots linked to Russia was “Manafort,” according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a transatlantic initiative that monitors their activity. That’s almost certainly a reference to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager now in deep legal trouble for alleged connections to Russian…

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