Nation

3,500 Facebook ads show scale of Russian manipulation

WASHINGTON — Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday released about 3,500 Facebook ads purchased by Russian agents around the 2016 presidential election on issues from immigration to gun control, a reminder of the complexity of the manipulation that Facebook is trying to contain ahead of the midterm elections.

The ads, from mid-2015 to mid-2017, illustrate the extent to which Kremlin-aligned forces sought to stoke social, cultural and political unrest on one of the Web’s most powerful platforms. With the help of Facebook’s targeting tools, they delivered their disinformation to narrow categories of users — from black or gay users to fans of Fox News.

In doing so, Russia’s online army reached at least 146 million people on Facebook and Instagram, its photo-sharing service, with ads and other posts. Sometimes, Russian trolls also tried to fuel rallies and protests, endeavoring at one point in 2016 to pit Beyoncé fans and critics against each other in New York City.

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The release of the ads comes months after top executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified at a trio of congressional hearings about Russia’s propaganda efforts, a campaign waged by the Kremlin-sponsored Internet Research Agency. Those companies since have pledged to vet political ads more aggressively, and Facebook in particular has said it would begin labeling ads about political candidates as well as some hot-button political issues.

In the meantime, Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers would continue probing Russia’s online disinformation efforts. In February, Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia and the 2016 election, indicted individuals tied to the Internet Research Agency for trying to interfere in the presidential race.