It was reported yesterday that Facebook allowed suspected Russian trolls to purchase ad buys on the social media platform which likely helped influence the election the favor of Donald Trump. Almost as soon as he announced his candidacy, the Russian troll farm began targeting voters on both the left, and the right.
The Russian brigades didn’t just try to push false stories in favor of Trump or against Hillary Clinton, it appears that they tried to shut down Facebook pages and accounts that were opposed to Trump. Leading up to the election, I was the victim of multiple unwarranted 30 day bans, without the option to appeal.
These posts were critical of Trump and his supporters. They did not contain nudity or strong language. These posts did not insult minorities, or break any rule Facebook had, but I was still forced to rely on backup accounts to keep publishing on my pages.
In fact, it became a running joke with my friends as to when I would be banned again, and for what ridiculous reason. I should have known better than to connect my personal account with any controversial page I was operating, but this was the 2016 election and there was so much on the line.
From personal experiences, I can tell you that Facebook is a platform that is easy to manipulate at an amateur level. Now just imagine how it can be leveraged with millions of dollars of foreign money intent on disrupting an election.
Representatives of Facebook told congressional investigators Wednesday that the social network has discovered that it sold ads during the U.S. presidential campaign to a shadowy Russian company seeking to target voters, according to several people familiar with the company’s findings.
Facebook officials reported that they traced the ad sales, totaling $100,000, to a Russian “troll farm” with a history of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, these people said.
A small portion of the ads, which began in the summer of 2015, directly named Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the people said, although they declined to say which candidate the ads favored.
Most of the ads, according to a blog post published late Wednesday by Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, “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.” (Washington Post)
If Russian interests were willing to spend these resources on disrupting the election, what else were they willing to do?
On the same day the news of the Russian ad buy broke, the Wall Street Journal also released findings that Facebook claimed a larger reach in the United States than census figures of our current population.
Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser found Facebook’s Ad Manager claims to reach a potential audience of 41 million 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S., whereas census data, most recently updated with a population estimate in 2016, indicates there are only 31 million people of that age group.
Similarly, among the 25- to-34-year-old age group, another key demographic for advertisers, Facebook’s potential reach estimate is also out of whack with census data. Facebook claims its platform can reach 60 million people in the U.S. in that category, while the census figure is 45 million.
In a statement, a Facebook spokeswoman said the company’s audience reach estimates “are based on a number of factors, including Facebook user behaviors, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors.” She added, “They are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.”
That means that there are 10 million people of that key demographic that are either lying about their age (a big stretch) or are fake accounts. I can tell you from personal experience that it is not hard to make an account, join multiple political groups, pose as causes on either the left or the right, and use them to influence local or state elections. I take a very small portion of the credit for the stunning defeat of David Vitter in 2015 with plans to do the same in further elections across Louisiana.
Facebook used to be a platform for college students to connect. Now it has turned into an advertising database using the information of anyone who is dumb enough to give out their personal information. They’re not verifying the legitimacy of the organizations, or at least making a half-hearted effort, so long as shareholders are happy – the security of our country be damned.