Russia-linked Facebook ads targeted swing states crucial to US President Donald Trump’s victory, according to new reports, adding further fire to claims the Kremlin interfered in last year’s election.
CNN has cited four sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, who confirmed that Russian ads targeted the battleground states of Michigan and Wisconsin in the run-up to the election.
Michigan, which Trump won by about 10,700 votes from his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, and Wisconsin, which he won by about 22,700, were both crucial to his Electoral College victory.
NBC News also claims political ads targeted other swing states, including Florida, Georgia and Ohio, all of which went for Trump.
As part of investigations into foreign involvement in the election, special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are asking whether the Russians received any advice from Trump associates on where to target the ads. The focus on Michigan and Wisconsin “adds more evidence that the Russian group tied to the effort was employing a wide range of tactics potentially aimed at interfering in the election”, says CNN.
On Monday, Facebook’s vice president for policy and communications, Elliot Schrage, said an estimated 10 million people in the US saw at least one of the 3,400 political ads bought by accounts linked to the Russian government.
Schrage said most of the ads “appear to focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights” and were designed to appeal directly to swing voters.
His disclosure came hours after Facebook handed over detailed records of the ads to House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, including data about buyers and their targets.
Facebook has admitted it is “possible” there are more Russian-bought political ads on the network yet to be identified.While the focus has been on assessing the origin and impact of ads placed in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, there are worries the site could be weaponised again for the 2018 midterms.
CNBC says Facebook is facing “mounting criticism” in Washington about its response to the propaganda and misinformation Russia-based organisations placed on its site.
Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has said it would be “crazy” to think the site could have swayed the election. Yet, less than a month ago, evidence foreign political actors had piggy-backed on the site forced him to apologise for the comment and say the company was committed to stopping foreign governments influencing US elections.
In response to the latest Facebook submissions, Senator Mark Warner, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he intends to introduce a bill that will remove an exemption for online political ads that have previously shielded their buyers from public scrutiny.