On Monday, Facebook handed some 3,000 ads over to congressional investigators, as the tech giant believes they were purchased for Russian propaganda. The ads, as well as the accounts and pages involved, haven't been made public yet, but their purpose seems to be "to sow discord and chaos, and divide us from one another."
Most of these ads don't support a specific candidate, but instead cluster around heated topics in American society with the purpose of fueling debate and division. In particular, these ads bring up issues regarding immigration and race relations. Facebook reports that they were disseminated through multiple pages and profiles, 470 of which have been linked to the Internet Research Agency, or, IRA. IRA is the so-called "troll farm" based in Saint Petersburg, a company which uses fake accounts to engage in online influence and disinformation operations on behalf of the Russian government. IRA is known to have meddled in the 2016 US Presidential campaign in the favor of then-candidate Donald Trump.
Rock bottom and then some
More often than not, these ads appear unassuming, and the propaganda stems from places that seem quite distant from political spheres. The Washington Post recently reported that one of the paid ads showcased a black woman "dry firing" an unloaded rifle. The purpose of this ad is unclear, though it did hit the web amid a period of racial tensions in the US. The New York Times, in turn, traced Russian propaganda back to a variety of groups including a "Defend the 2nd" group "festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric," a gay rights group named "LGBT United," even an animal-lover page plastered with pictures of puppies.
CNN reported several ads in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which appeared to be targeted specifically to Ferguson and Baltimore during the protests. The material itself wasn't as much about supporting the movement as it was about "portraying the group as threatening to some residents."
Facebook hasn't identified which ads were purchased by Russian-based entities thus far, but it also hasn’t prevented from leaking. The Daily Beast, for example, has recovered and reported content from accounts it believes are associated with Russian interests, such as the United Muslims of America. According to the Daily Beast, "Russians impersonated real American Muslims to stir chaos on Facebook and Instagram."
"These ads are significant to our investigation as they help demonstrate how Russia employed sophisticated measures to push disinformation and propaganda to millions of Americans online during the election, in order to sow discord and chaos, and divide us from one another," Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC News.
These ads make me sick, so I won’t show them here -- all the pieces I've linked have plenty. They're equal parts ignorant and infuriating, with strange yellow font and typos peppered throughout. The Committee has gained possession of the ad,s and Schiff hopes to release a "representative sampling" of them to the public.
Facebook said it will strive for greater transparency in the future. Towards this end, they will hire about 1,000 more ad reviewers in the near future, and will request groups running political ads to post copies of these ads publicly.
The first line of defense here isn't policy, or a company that may or may not have a conflict of interest in limiting ad sales; it's each and every one of us. These ads are trying to influence your opinion; somebody is paying money to try and change your mind. Don't give them the satisfaction. Never hate because you're told to hate. Don't accept conflict in lieu of cooperation, especially when cooperation looks difficult, even impossible. Don't allow lines to be drawn for you, separating an arbitrary "us" from a just-as-arbitrary "them". Just because it's on the Internet, it doesn't mean it's true. Especially when somebody is shelling money at Facebook so you'll see what they have to say.
Never hate because you're told to hate. Don't accept conflict in lieu of cooperation, especially in cases when cooperation looks difficult, or even impossible. Don't allow lines to be drawn for you, which separate an arbitrary "us" from a just-as-arbitrary "them". Just because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's true, especially when someone is shilling money at Facebook so you'll see what they have to say.
Worthy causes spread by themselves. Propaganda spreads by paying for ads.