Thousands of newly disclosed fake Facebook posts and ads show for the first time how Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election directly targeted Minnesotans with divisive, racially charged messages.
Among the scores of often incendiary ads released last week by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, about a dozen referenced Minnesota events, including the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, a Star Tribune analysis shows. Dozens more mentioned controversies elsewhere, but were funneled to Facebook users in Minnesota.
The ads appeared to be part of what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as a sophisticated Russian campaign meant to use the social media giant’s platforms to sow discord in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
According to estimates, more than 80,000 ads and other posts were seen at least 126 million times on Facebook and its photo-sharing site, Instagram, from mid-2015 to mid-2017.
They offer a rare window into how Russian operatives used Facebook’s targeted advertising tools to deliver propaganda or divisive content to narrow categories of users — for instance, black or LGBT readers. Most of the ads were meant to intensify ethnic and regional divisions, often taking multiple sides on controversial issues, such as immigration and gun rights.
Others attempted to stoke divisions by promoting President Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, who ran against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries.
“There’s obviously some significant division in this country, and so my guess is that they looked for where there are real divisions and then tried to make them deeper,” said Andrew Aoki, a political-science professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis who has studied the intersection of politics and race. “Because it’s a lot easier to stoke the fires that are already burning than to start new ones.”
The Star Tribune analysis of the ads showed that 38 of the more than 3,500 ads and social media posts were specifically targeted at Minnesotans on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, or made some mention of a high-profile police shooting or demonstration in the state.
Of those, 17 were paid ads, at a cost of $492.93 (paid for in rubles), and received thousands of views, or impressions.
Some of the phony ads were made to appear as if they were affiliated with bona fide activists, while others targeted Facebook users who “liked” Black Lives Matter, and their Facebook friends.
The posts were viewed nearly 173,000 times and clicked on more than 8,800 times, and the analysis showed some postings had thousands of views, while others had none.
Some Twin Cities activists were skeptical of the impact the ads might have had in shaping opinions.
Mel Reeves, a longtime police critic, called the idea that foreign agents could incite domestic unrest “insulting.”
“An injustice was done, the average person doesn’t need to be told when they’re being wronged,” said Reeves. “The Russians didn’t get the Newark riots going or the Detroit riots going.”
‘Seeds of discord’
For Kevin Williams, the revelations are a reminder of how quickly misinformation can spread, as online advertising tools have grown more and more sophisticated.
“When you have that, it’s so simple to spread false information or to plant those seeds of discord,” said Williams, a Twin Cities activist focused on police brutality and economic justice. If anything, he said, the ads exploited divisions that have been around for years.
Others said the ongoing attention to Russia’s role in stoking grievances obscures genuine issues of police violence against minorities and economic disparities.
At least four of the Minnesota-centric ads placed between July and August 2016 referred to Philando Castile, including one promoting a rally shortly after Castile was killed. Another six named Jamar Clark, the unarmed black man whose 2015 shooting death by a white officer set off a weekslong demonstration outside a north Minneapolis police station.
Another posting, which got nearly 10,500 impressions by targeting friends of people who were connected to the page “United Muslims of America,” featured Kadra Mohamed, a Metro Transit police officer, who made national headlines four years ago when she became the first woman of Somali descent to join the St. Paul Police Department.
Most of the posts were created within two weeks of the election and featured racially charged or anti-Muslim themes, including one from August 2015 — aimed at users who “liked” the “Being Patriotic” page — about a protest outside the Stearns County courthouse that called for Muslims to be “deported back to their 7th century countries.” Another one referenced a former St. Paul police sergeant who came under fire after using his personal Facebook account to encourage drivers to run over anti-police protesters.
The existence of the Russian ads on Facebook was first reported last fall, but their specific content became public only last week.
Democratic lawmakers said the postings were created by the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin and controlled by a man nicknamed Putin’s chef because of his closeness to the Russian leader.
Several employees of the Internet Research Agency, a so-called “troll farm” known for creating fake accounts to post on social media and news sites, were indicted earlier this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for their roles in attempting to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
The Facebook files’ release last week was accompanied by Democratic calls for the company to take more responsibility for the content on sites it owns.
‘Very real frustrations’
The tech giant has said that more than 10 million people in the United States saw the ads, more than half of which ran after the election. In a statement Thursday, Facebook said that it has since taken steps to “prevent bad actors from using misinformation to undermine the democratic process.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, posted on Twitter that the fake ads “sought to harness Americans’ very real frustrations and anger over sensitive political matters to influence our thinking, voting and behavior.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the disclosure long overdue.
“Americans not only have the right to know who is paying to influence them, they also deserve to know in a more transparent and timely manner,” said Klobuchar, the lead author of the proposed Honest Ads Act, which would require internet companies like Facebook to reveal who is paying for political ads on their sites.
Some Republican lawmakers have countered that the matter was being blown out of proportion for political gain.
In November, several national news outlets reported that Russian agents were behind eight Facebook accounts that publicized or financed at least 60 rallies across the United States, including one in the Twin Cities shortly after Castile’s death.
“How many more black men have to be killed until the government realizes that it’s time to,” the Facebook post read, ending abruptly with the preposition.
At the time, some local activists doubted the allegations of Russian meddling, saying they thought the protest had been orchestrated by out-of-state actors seeking to create confusion. After local groups became suspicious of one of the phony Facebook marches, hosted by a page called “Don’t Shoot,” they posted online notices urging people not to attend.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.