Did you fall for these fake ads? How Russian trolls got into your Facebook feeds

Lawmakers met with representatives from social media giants Facebook and Twitter this week and demanded answers about why the companies haven't done more to combat Russian interference on their sites.

Several Facebook ads linked to a Russian internet agency with the intention of influencing American public opinion during the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath were released Wednesday.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency potentially reached as many as 126 million Facebook users.

Before Wednesday, Facebook revealed more than 3,000 ads linked to the agency.

Another 2,752 Twitter accounts linked to the same group were uncovered and shut down.

About the ads

A bulk of the Facebook ads the agency bought encouraged support for then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or attacked Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton.

But many others targeted Facebook users with strong opinions on gun rights, illegal immigration, black activism, LGBTQ rights, Islamophobia and other issues that could be used to further exploit division.

According to a congressional testimony in March from Clint Watts, from George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, creating and spreading fake content is part of another Russian strategy to undermine trust in news and information sources.

Several ads were images and others were videos or simply text.

How the Facebook ads work

Using targeting tools already available on Facebook, the agency was able to pinpoint their chosen audiences based on a multitude of factors — and put money behind the ads to increase visibility.

These Facebook ads would spread via fake profiles, pages and groups often set up by Russian-controlled organizations, such as the Internet Research Agency.

Such ads can appear in your news feed or on the right sidebar panel and often don’t look any different from other ads.

Simply clicking the “like” button or sharing an ad the way anyone would share a Facebook post only helped the ads get more visibility.

Some of Facebook’s targeting options for boosted or sponsored posts and ads include location, age, gender and interests.

For example, a Russian-made page called “Donald Trump America” targeted those interested in Trump and the Trump family, many of whom were Trump supporters, for an ad calling for the “disqualification and removal of Hillary Clinton from the presidential ballot.”

Note that the post is labeled as sponsored (under the “Donald Trump America” page title).

Another Russian-made group called “Defend the 2nd” targeted gun rights advocates and users with like-minded likes and interests, including but not limited to association with the following Facebook groups or pages: National Rifle Association, Second Amendment Sisters and Gun Owners of America. This type of ad stroked fears around gun rights, one of America’s most divisive issues.

At times, ads would even promote fake events in cities by targeting users by location.

These Facebook targeting tools used by Russia are commonly used by advertisers and American political campaigns to target specific audiences.

How many people saw the ads?

The Russian ads linked to troll pages reached a total 11.4 million people. The troll pages themselves, where a total of 80,000 posts were created, reached 126 million people.

TechCrunch pulled together exactly which interest groups were targeted, how much spending went into specific Russian Facebook and Instagram ads provided to Congress and how many clicks and impressions each generated.

Examples of Facebook ads used by Russian trolls

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