Facebook says likely Russian-based operation funded US ads with political message

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 6 (Reuters) - Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it had found that an operation likely based in Russia spent $100,000 on thousands of U.S. ads promoting divisive social and political messages in a two-year-period through May.

Facebook, the dominant social media network, said 3,000 ads and 470 "inauthentic" accounts and pages spread polarizing views on topics including immigration, race and gay rights.

Another $50,000 was spent on 2,200 "potentially politically related" ads, likely by Russians, Facebook said.

U.S. election law bars foreign nationals and foreign entities from spending money to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. Non-U.S. citizens may generally advertise on issues. Other ads, such as those that mention a candidate but do not call for the candidate's election or defeat, fall into what lawyers have called a legal gray area.

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Joel Kjellgren, Data Center Manager walks in one of the server rooms at the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Signage stands outside the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Facebook Inc. flag flies next to a U.S. flag outside the company's Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Signage made up of individual faces is displayed inside the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The silhouette of an employee is seen standing in front of a cooling system that pulls air in from outside at the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An employee puts in a filter that protects against pollen, bugs, and dust from the outside air that is pulled in at the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An employee fixes part of a web server inside the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Joel Kjellgren, Data Center Manager opens a server in one of server rooms at the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken with a fisheye lens shows a man walks past a big logo created from pictures of Facebook users worldwide in the company's Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of servers are pictured at the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken with a fisheye lens shows the Evaporator Room of the first server rooms in the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
The Relief Room of the first server rooms is pictured in the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Employees work at the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Signage is reflected in a window at the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S., on Monday, April 28, 2014. The Facebook Prineville Data Center features leading energy-efficient technology, including features such as rainwater reclamation, a solar energy installation for providing electricity to the office areas and reuse of heat created by the servers to heat office space. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Joel Kjellgren, Data Center Manager shows a server in one of server rooms at the new Facebook Data Center, its first outside the US on November 7, 2013 in Luleaa, Swedish Lapland. The company began construction on the facility in October 2011 and went live on June 12, 2013 and are 100% run on hydro power. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
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Facebook announced the findings in a blog post by its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, and said that it was cooperating with federal inquiries into influence operations during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Facebook briefed members of both the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees on Wednesday about the suspected Russia advertising, according to a congressional source familiar with the matter. Both committees are conducting probes into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, including potential collusion between the campaign of President Donald Trump and Moscow.

Facebook also gave its findings to Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of investigating alleged Russian interference in last year's presidential election, a source familiar with the matter said. The company produced copies of advertisements as well as data about the buyers, the source said.

Mueller's office declined to comment.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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Facebook said it found no link between the Russian-purchased advertising and any specific presidential campaign. The ads were mostly national in their focus and did not appear to reflect targeting of political swing-states, the company said.

Even if no laws were violated, Facebook said the 470 accounts and pages associated with the ads ran afoul of the social network's requirements for authenticity and have since been suspended.

Facebook did not print the names of any of the suspended pages, but some of them included such words as "refugee" and "patriot."

More than $1 billion was spent on political ads during the 2016 presidential campaign, thousands of times more than the presumed Russian spending identified by Facebook's security team.

But the findings buttress U.S. intelligence agency conclusions that Russia was actively involved in shaping the election.

Facebook previously published a white paper on influence operations, including what it said were fake "amplifier" accounts for propaganda, and said it was cracking down.

As recently as June, Facebook told journalists that it had not found any evidence of Russian operatives buying election-related ads on its platform.

"TROLL FACTORY" CONNECTION

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called theFacebook report "deeply disturbing and yet fully consistent with the unclassified assessment of the intelligence community."

"We are keenly interested in Russia's use of social media platforms, both the use of bots and trolls to spread disinformation and propaganda, including through the use of paid online advertising," he said in a statement.

A Facebook employee said Wednesday that there were unspecified connections between the divisive issue ads and a well-known Russian "troll factory" in St. Petersburg that publishes comments on social media.

Ellen Weintraub, a member of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, said U.S. voters deserve to know where the ads are coming from and that the money behind them is legal.

"It is unlawful for foreign nationals to be spending money in connection with any federal, state or local election, directly or indirectly," Weintraub said in a phone interview.

She declined to comment on the Facebook ads, saying she could not discuss subjects that could come before the agency.

Facebook declined to release the ads themselves, prompting a sharp rebuke on Twitter from Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of First Look Media, a producer of feature and documentary films, television and podcasts.

"Facebook keeps the targeted political ads it publishes secret, emboldening criminals," wrote Omidyar, the eBay founder who also provided funding to launch media organization The Intercept.

"I don't see how that can possibly be legal."

Facebook's disclosure may be the first time a private entity has pointed to receiving Russian money related to U.S. elections, said Brendan Fischer, a program director at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for more transparency.

"Whoever may have provided assistance to Russia in buying these Facebook ads is very likely in violation of the law," he said, adding that Facebook has a legal duty to act if it is aware of similar activity in the future.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn and David Ingram; Additional reporting by Dustin Volz in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Leslie Adler)

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