Documents detail Russian ads targeted at Charlotte Facebook users

Posted May 11, 2018 3:17 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 1:50 p.m. EDT

— The Russian troll farm implicated in an elaborate plot to sow political discord in the United States specifically targeted North Carolina social media users, documents released by Democrats on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee show.

The document dump Thursday, collected during the committee's investigation into election meddling, included thousands of pages of social media advertisements Facebook officials say were purchased by the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency.

Nationwide, the committee says more than 11.4 million American users saw the ads at some point in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

A WRAL News analysis shows the notorious "troll farm" targeted at least five separate ads at Facebook and Instagram users in North Carolina in 2016 and 2017 – some of which ran multiple times. For a little more than $500, those ads racked up 86,000 views and almost 7,000 clicks on posts promoting protests in Charlotte, support for the Confederate flag and a legal workshop for immigrants.

Democratic 4th District Congressman David Price said in an interview Friday that the data show operatives used current events and even hijacked some worthy causes in an attempt to create more division.

"The effort there was to go after the swing states and states where the balance, politically, might be influenced," Price said. "The tactic was to foment discontent and disturb and disrupt American democracy."

The bulk of the posts aimed at North Carolina used Facebook's micro-targeting ability to reach users who live in Charlotte interested in topics such as the civil rights movement and African-American history.

The most successful ad promoted a protest demanding justice for Keith Lamont Scott, a black Charlotte man shot and killed by a police officer in September 2016. After initially peaceful protests in the Queen City turned violent, the ad ran for three days in Facebook users' feeds, appearing almost 23,000 times and logging nearly 4,000 clicks. It cost Internet Research Agency less than $100.

"I think it's really interesting, when we take a step back, that simply exploiting and exacerbating our political polarization is the strategy of choice to destabilize our country, that it's the strategy of choice that a foreign power thinks is most effective," said Philip Napoli, a professor in Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy who also is an affiliate of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.

Propagandists love social media because it's so easy to react quickly and reach exactly the people you want to reach, Napoli said, predicting more such efforts in this year's campaigns.

Federal prosecutors revealed some details of the extent of Russian meddling in February, when an indictment from U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller accused 13 Russian nationals of running a social media campaign to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

In one case, a protest organized by Russian fake accounts attracted dozens of people to the streets in Charlotte to protest the election of Donald Trump. Prosecutors cited it as an example of an attempt to spread distrust the electoral system.

But the ads released this week offer far more details about the extent of the Russian campaign identified by Facebook engineers.

"It gives us a fuller understanding of just how far this Russian interference went and how far it will go if we don't do something about it," Price said.

Other ads not targeted specifically at North Carolina users referenced events in Charlotte, like the 2017 assault of a black woman by an employee of a local beauty shop. Video of the the incident went viral and prompted calls for a boycott.

Posts promoted by two Russian-linked Facebook pages – Blacktivist and Williams & Kalvin – shared the video days later and echoed calls for the boycott.

"But folks, I want it to be not only the boycott of this exact store but all shops and stores where Black people were treated disrespectfully!" the posts read. "We don't believe apologies, especially when we know that this man is sorry only about profit he's going to lose!"

Two posts about that video earned more than 64,000 impressions and 11,000 clicks. Together, they cost the equivalent of $9.31.

Not all the ads performed as well. One ad in June 2016 warning of an "illegal immigrant invasion" and pointing to the discovery of a "huge drug cartel operation" in North Carolina collected only 7 impressions after it was targeted to users in New York for about a day.

Another that highlighted a Trump supporter who punched a black protester at a Fayetteville rally showed up only 10 times in New York users' feeds.

In a prepared statement Friday, North Carolina 12th District Congresswoman Alma Adams, whose district encompasses most of Charlotte, said the release of the ads underscores the importance of Mueller's investigation.

"We cannot allow American’s real concerns and passionate beliefs to be exploited by fake accounts designed by foreign agents to drive a wedge between us," Adams said. "I will continue to closely monitor this investigation, and I urge my Republican colleagues to take swift action to protect the integrity of Special Counsel Mueller’s probe."

Price echoed the need for the Mueller investigation to run its full course. But he also pointed to role Congress should play in making sure platforms are policing themselves. The goal, he said, is to "make this behavior very expensive" for groups like the IRA.

"On all kinds of fronts, we need to wake up to this and understand just how far this has gone," Price said.

The offices of Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that 11.4 Americans saw Facebook ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency. The correct number was 11.4 million Americans.