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Facebook sold targeted ads to a Russian ‘troll farm,’ and that’s a big problem

By on September 7, 2017

So Facebook reportedly sold thousands of ads to a shady Russian company trying to influence voters around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This much we know. What is less clear, perhaps, is just how big of a deal this is.

Unfortunately, the answer is complicated. But nothing about this looks good.

The company in question, which The Washington Post reports is tied to a Russian propaganda “troll farm,” ran ads that Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos wrote”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.”

According to the Post, a number of these ads referenced either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

The social media giant has so far declined to note just which candidate the ads appeared to favor, but, with the CIA having determined with “high confidence” that the Russian government worked to help Donald Trump, we can make an educated guess.

Importantly, the Post reminds us, federal law prohibits both foreign nationals and foreign governments from “making contributions or spending money to influence a federal, state or local election in the United States.”

This latest revelation follows claims made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg after the election, in which he said it was “a pretty crazy idea” that his company’s failure to reign in so-called “fake news” was in any way responsible for the election of Donald Trump. Importantly, as Facebook is refusing to disclose just what the ads in question were, we don’t know if they fall into that category. But, in some sense, it may not matter that much either way.

Because what’s troubling here is not that a Russian group, in this case the Internet Research Agency, wanted to influence the U.S. election. It’s that Facebook made the attempt so easy — all for the relatively low cost of $100,000.

Remember, the tools Facebook offers to advertisers are incredibly powerful and allow for extremely granular ad targeting. And we know that the Internet Research Agency took advantage of this. Around a quarter of the approximately 3,000 advertisements in question, which ran from June of 2015 to May of 2017, were targeted geographically.

An organization wanting to sway popular opinion need look no further than a focused Facebook ad buy, and that’s apparently exactly what the Internet Research Agency did. And Facebook was unable to stop it.

This doesn’t bode well for our big data future (or present), because when our digital overlords are asleep at the wheel, it’s all of us who will suffer the consequences.