In the wake of the 2016 election, when the term "fake news" had not yet been co-opted to mean anything with which you disagree, Mark Zuckerberg asserted that "the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way… is a pretty crazy idea."
He might want to revisit that assertion, as Facebook today said 470 "inauthentic" accounts and Pages that "likely operated out of Russia" spent approximately $100,000 between June 2015 and May 2017 on 3,000 Facebook ads.
"The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn't specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate," Alex Stamos, Facebook's Chief Security Officer, said in a statement. But they did "focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights."
About a quarter of the ads were geographically targeted; of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016, Stamos said.
The accounts in question have since been shut down, and Facebook has alerted "US authorities investigating these issue."
Fake News Debate
The debate over whether Russia influenced the election or not has raged since Nov. 8. It's not a question of whether Russian hackers changed vote tallies; despite targeting election systems in at least 21 states, it does not appear that they messed with any actual votes given this country's decentralized voting process.
Instead, the question is whether Russia was able to spread disinformation, which ultimately influenced how people voted. Did they add false data to the stolen DNC emails that were handed to WikiLeaks and posted online, in the hopes that legitimate news sources would report on it? Did they create an army of bots to spread false news stories, which would be posted on Facebook by your neighbor, grandmother, or third grade teacher? Did they create legitimate-sounding news outlets, post fake stories, push them to social networks, and hope for a viral hit?
In November, BuzzFeed reported that fake stories generated more engagement on Facebook in the last three months of the election than stories from reputable news sources. The top 20 stories on fake sites generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook; the top 20 stories from 19 major news outlets had 7,367,000, the site found.
To be sure, Russians were not the only ones doing this. For every group of sophisticated, Kremlin-backed hackers or Macedonian scammers, there were dudes from California to Maryland cooking up fake stories they hoped would go viral. But for them, the incentive was financial; those fake sites had ads, and the more clicks they got, the more they got paid— something Facebook and Google have cracked down on since the election.
For Russians, though, the goal was political. "Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency, and to help President Trump's election chances," former CIA Director John Brennan told Congress in May.
Since the election, Facebook has tried to stop the proliferation of fake news, from reporting tools to coalitions. Today, Stamos said the company is "exploring several new improvements to our systems for keeping inauthentic accounts and activity off our platform.
"For example, we are looking at how we can apply the techniques we developed for detecting fake accounts to better detect inauthentic Pages and the ads they may run. We are also experimenting with changes to help us more efficiently detect and stop inauthentic accounts at the time they are being created."