Purged Facebook Page Tied to the Kremlin Spread Anti-Immigrant Bile


The notice went out on Facebook last year, calling citizens of Twin Falls, Idaho, to an urgent meeting about the “huge upsurge of violence toward American citizens” by Muslim refugees who had settled there.

The inflammatory post, however, originated not in Idaho but in Russia. The meeting’s sponsor, an anti-immigrant page called “Secured Borders,” was one of hundreds of fake Facebook accounts created by a Russian company with Kremlin ties to spread vitriolic messages on divisive issues.

Facebook acknowledged last week that it had closed the accounts after linking them to advertisements costing $100,000 that were purchased in Russia’s influence campaign during and after the 2016 election. But the company declined to release or describe in detail the pages and profiles it had linked to Russia.

A report by the Russian media outlet RBC last March, however, identified the Secured Borders page as the work of the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg firm that employs hundreds of so-called trolls to post material in support of Russian government policies. A Facebook official confirmed that Secured Borders was removed in the purge of Russian fakes.

The Secured Borders page, a search for archived images shows, spent months posing as an American activist group and spreading provocative messages on Facebook calling immigrants “scum” and “freeloaders,” linking refugees to crime and praising President Trump’s tough line on immigration. The page attracted more than 133,000 followers before it was shut down.

It also promoted the Aug. 27, 2016, meeting in Twin Falls, called “Citizens before refugees,” which was first reported by The Daily Beast. The call came amid incendiary claims, linking Muslim refugees in Twin Falls to crime, that circulated on far-right websites last year. In May, Alex Jones, of the conspiracy site Infowars.com, retracted a claim that the Twin Falls yogurt company Chobani, which had made a point of hiring refugees, had been “caught importing migrant rapists.”

Shawn Barigar, the mayor of Twin Falls, said that the City Council Chambers, where the supposed meeting was called on a Saturday, were closed that day and that officials did not recall any gathering. But he said that after two years of “robust debate” over the city’s refugee resettlement program, which dates to the 1980s, it was “kind of surreal” to discover that Russia had joined in.

“I kind of thought, ‘Well, that’s an interesting twist,’” Mr. Barigar said. He said the program “represents our core values as a community — welcoming others and learning from one another.” He said immigrants had not caused disproportionate problems there.

The multifaceted Russian information operation targeting the presidential election had many elements, including the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails, regular attacks on Hillary Clinton by the RT television channel and the online news site Sputnik, and the creation of fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter. But the Twin Falls post is the first example to come to light of Russian agents actually trying to conjure a political rally on American soil.

Facebook officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had found a small number of additional events announced by the Russia-created pages and were looking for more. They declined to give examples.

The new revelations stepped up pressure on Facebook to make public more of what it knows about the Russian propaganda operations.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that he wanted Facebook and Twitter to testify in public session about the Russian use of their sites.

Mr. Warner called Facebook’s closed briefing for his committee and its House counterpart last week “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“We’re seeing more evidence of additional ads and how they are used to manipulate individuals,” he said.

Calling social media “the wild, wild West,” Mr. Warner said that getting a handle on the 2016 experience with Russian intrusions was critical because “the amount of advertising and use of these social media platforms in elections is only going to go exponentially up.” He said Twitter representatives would brief the committee soon.

Facebook said last week that the 470 “inauthentic accounts and pages” it had linked to Russia and removed had bought about 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May this year. Though some ads mentioned the presidential candidates or the election, most “appeared to 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,” wrote Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer.

The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, has long been concerned that the United States might be inspiring pro-democracy movements inside Russia and on its periphery, including in Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic republics.

Jonathon Morgan, a former State Department adviser who has studied Russian online operations at his company, New Knowledge, said the Facebook activity underscored that the broader Russian goal went beyond attacks on Mrs. Clinton or support for Mr. Trump in last year’s election.

“This is more about destabilizing democracy and pitting us against each other to limit the influence of the United States on the world stage,” he said.

Clinton Watts, a former F.B.I. agent, now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who has studied the Russian influence campaign, said that beyond damaging the American image, Mr. Putin had reasons to court particular subgroups.

“If he’s successful, it gives him an indigenous U.S. audience in support of his policies,” Mr. Watts said. “It also gives him leverage in talking to President Trump: ‘Why don’t you stop interfering in Ukraine, and we’ll leave your domestic audience alone.’”

The potential influence of the Russia-linked Facebook ads depends in part on how they were targeted. While $100,000 is tiny compared with Facebook’s billions in quarterly advertising revenue, digital advertising experts said that even a little money could go a long way with Facebook advertising.

“In a world of microtargeting, where you can home in on individuals down to the zip code, $100,000 can go a lot further than one would realize,” said Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, an advertising research trade organization.

A group like Secured Borders may test hundreds of Facebook posts to see what content resonates with people, closely monitoring the number of likes, shares and clicks a post receives. If a post happens to take off, the group can pay to promote the post, effectively placing it in front of millions of people.

The issue is a thorny one for Facebook, whose business is almost entirely based on advertising. Executives at the social giant are deeply concerned about the federal government’s recent inquiries into how the company’s advertising works. Its advertising is not subject to the same regulations put on political print, radio and television ads.

The Russian campaign’s use of Facebook has distressed some employees, according to internal communications. In an excerpt from a company discussion board that was shared with The New York Times, Facebook employees pressed their bosses to be more open.

“Why are we only writing about this now?” one employee wrote, noting that last week’s Facebook disclosure came after months of news reports about the Russian influence campaign. Other workers asked for examples of the ads in question and for details on what the company described as the “geographic targeting” of some ads — specifically, whether they targeted swing states.

Mr. Stamos, the company’s security chief, declined to disclose more information. “There are complicated legal issues about what we can share with various interested parties,” he wrote on the discussion board. “I can’t go into more details than that at the moment.”



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