Congress releases all 3,000-plus Facebook ads bought by Russians

Wow, the Russians didn't have to spend much to influence the 2016 election.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
5 min read
House Intel Committee/Facebook

Congress just dropped the Russian trolling motherlode.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released on Thursday more than 3,000 Facebook ads from 2015 to late 2017 bought by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). The company, which is linked to Russia-backed propaganda efforts across social media, used these ads on Facebook -- and on Facebook-owned Instagram -- to try to create political chaos and hurt US democracy, lawmakers said.

Watch this: Russian troll Facebook ads released

You can download all of the ads here. They add up to about 7.9 gigabytes of data.

Congress offered a taste of the Russia-sponsored ads on Facebook during a November hearing. On Thursday, committee members released every ad.

"The only way we can begin to inoculate ourselves against a future attack is to see first-hand the types of messages, themes and imagery the Russians used to divide us," Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

These ads, which popped up as sponsored posts in the news feeds of specifically targeted groups of Facebook users, were heavily promoted during the US presidential election in 2016.

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US Rep. Terri Sewell, a Democrat of Alabama, stands before a printout of a social media post that targeted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Sewell spoke during a House Intelligence Committee hearing last November.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The release of all the ads includes summaries about them, such as which pages an ad posted on, who was targeted, how many people saw it, how many people clicked on it and how long the ad ran.

For example, one post from June 2016 targeted Facebook users in the Washington, DC, area who were age 16 to 53 and interested in Hillary Clinton or the Muslim Brotherhood. The Russians paid 3,981 rubles for it, or about $63. About 1,849 people saw the ad, and 94 ended up clicking on it.

Altogether, Russia-backed operatives spent up to $100,000 on all the ads.

That's not counting the 126 million Americans who saw 80,000 "organic" posts from supposed Facebook users who actually worked for the IRA, Facebook said in October. Those posts generated millions of views without the IRA having to pay Facebook a single cent (or a ruble). The House Intelligence Committee members said they expect to make those posts public in the future.

Last month, Facebook deleted 70 Facebook accounts, 138 Facebook pages and 65 Instagram accounts run by the IRA.

"This will never be a solved problem because we're up against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries. But we are making steady progress," Facebook said in a statement Thursday.

Facebook said it's taken a number of actions since its advertising fiasco unfolded. The company has updated its ads policy, requiring political content to be verified and labeled. The social network said it will allow people to see all the ads one account is running across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, archiving it for the last seven years. That feature is already available in Canada and Ireland and will launch globally in June, according to Facebook.

Facebook makes much of its money by selling hyper-targeted ads. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress in April that companies pay Facebook to direct content to people they believe will buy their products.  

From the summaries about the Russia-backed ads, it appears the IRA knew just how effective that targeting algorithm is -- not just for selling products, but for stirring up political issues.

In a sponsored post from April 2016, Russian operatives posed as "Black Matters," urging people to vote for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who was then competing against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

That ad cost 2,786.36 rubles, or $44. It got 46,437 views, and 5,607 clicks.

A "Black Matters" page was one of the IRA's more successful, with more 224,000 followers.

Other posts by Black Matters would target people who read BlackNews.com or HuffPost Black Voices. Facebook said it has since removed nearly one-third of the terms that the IRA used to target audiences.

The nine types of Facebook ads that Russian trolls paid for

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The House Democrats broke down the more than 3,000 ads into nine categories:

  • Events: Russian operatives set up events like anti-Trump protests or pro-Muslim rallies and promoted them on Facebook. In some scenarios, they would set up both a protest and a counterprotest, hoping to lead to conflict in real life. Between 2015 and 2017, they created 129 events, which were viewed by more than 300,000 people. About 62,000 Facebook users said they would attend.
  • African-American focused: These ads pretended to be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, with images the House committee members called "pernicious and disturbing." The goal was to intensify racial tensions during the US election in 2016, lawmakers said. One account, called "Blacktivist," had more than 360,000 likes before it was shut down. One ad, posted on Instagram by @afrokingdom_, called for people to "be ready to fight."
  • Immigration: The ads in this category capitalized on border security issues and anti-immigration sentiments echoing throughout Donald Trump's campaign. One of the IRA's most popular groups, "Stop A.I.," which stood for All Invaders, had 193,813 followers. Another, called "Secured Borders," had 135,301 followers.
  • Second Amendment: These ads focused on pro-gun audiences, calling out to "2nd Amendment supporters, guns lovers & patriots," according to one post.
  • Heart of Texas: This Texas-targeted group was so popular that the House Democrats gave its ads a separate category. The page had 253,862 followers and promoted posts with several themes, including guns, immigration and anti-Hillary Clinton. It also promoted posts calling for Texas to secede from the US.
  • LGBT: The IRA posted ads as pages like "LGBT United," with content such as a "Buff Bernie" coloring book. The page also organized counterprotests.
  • Muslims: Russian operatives tied their anti-Muslim ad campaign to issues involving Trump and Clinton. They controlled the "United Muslims of America" group, which had more than 328,000 followers. This group would often come into fabricated conflict with the "Heart of Texas" group.
  • Veterans: The majority of the posts from Russian operatives posing as pro-military groups were anti-Clinton. These posts also mixed in legitimate content promoting veterans to build an audience, lawmakers said.
  • Candidates: The most common ads throughout 2016 heavily promoted Trump and sought to hurt Clinton's campaign. The sponsored posts called for people to go to rallies, while articles posted by groups like "Born Liberal" would support Sanders. One promoted post by the Blacktivist group, for instance, called for a flash mob with the hashtag #HillaryClintonForPrison2016.

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