Top senator: Russian Facebook ads were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’

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Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) questions witnesses about Russian interference in U.S. elections at the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua RobertsSenator Mark Warner (D-VA) questions witnesses about Russian interference in U.S. elections at the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington Thomson Reuters

Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Mark Warner said Thursday that the purchase of $100,000 worth of Facebook ads from Russian-linked accounts during the 2016 election was only “the tip of the iceberg.”

Warner said during a panel event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance that it may be time to pass legislation requiring that social media companies disclose the sources of campaign-related ads, and that he wants to see “the backend” of Facebook’s ad operations during the election.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is currently investigating Russia’s election interference, carried out via hacks on the Democratic National Committee and a fake-news campaign targeting Hillary Clinton and Democrats across various social media platforms.

Days after Trump won the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that the platform had been used to manipulate voters as “pretty crazy.”  

But Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said in a statement Wednesday that after a months-long review, the company found that “approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — [was] connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies.”

Facebook found upon analyzing those accounts and pages that they “were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”

Americans “ought to be able to know if there is foreign-sponsored [internet] content coming into their electoral process,” Warner said at Thursday. “That becomes a method of influence exponentially, I would argue, bigger than TV and radio.”

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Wednesday that he, too, is “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.”

An ‘army of well-paid trolls’

Schiff said he also wants to know how sophisticated the ads were — in terms of their content and whom they targeted — to determine whether they had any help from the Trump campaign, he told MSNBC on Thursday morning. 

Facebook said in its statement that about 25% of the ads purchased by Russians “were geographically targeted.” Facebook representatives told lawmakers behind closed doors Wednesday that the ad sales had been traced back to a notorious Russian “troll factory,” according to The Washington Post. 

Warner said Thursday that while “we know about the hacking, as a former tech guy, what really concerns me is that there were upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of Russia taking over computers, making botnets, and generating news down to specific areas.”

Freelance journalist Adrian Chen, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, researched Russia’s “army of well-paid trolls” for an explosive New York Times Magazine exposé published in June 2015 — and found that many of the trolls he had been monitoring “turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives” as the election progressed. 

“I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff,” Chen told Longform‘s Max Linsky in a podcast in December 2015.

Linsky asked Chen who he thought “was paying for that.”

“I don’t know,” Chen replied. “I feel like it’s some kind of really opaque strategy of electing Donald Trump to undermine the US or something. Like false-flag kind of thing. You know, that’s how I started thinking about all this stuff after being in Russia.”

In his research from St. Petersburg, Chen discovered that Russian internet trolls — paid by the Kremlin to spread false information on the internet — have been behind a number of “highly coordinated campaigns” to deceive the American public.

It’s a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,” that has been used by the Russians since at least the Cold War. The disinformation campaigns are only one “active measure” tool used by Russian intelligence to sow discord among, and within, allies perceived hostile to Russia.

“Part of our responsibility is to put the American public on a higher level of alert that, this time it was Russia, but it could be other foreign nations as well,” Warner said Thursday . “We are in a whole new realm around cyber that provides opportunities — but also huge, huge threats for basic democracy.”