Lawmakers on Wednesday released a trove of Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and whip up tensions around divisive social issues.
The ads, dozens of which were disclosed for the first time, were released as representatives of leading social media companies faced criticism on Capitol Hill about why they hadn't done more to combat Russian interference on their sites and prevent foreign agents from meddling in last year's election.
Some of the ads took opposing sides of the same issue. One touts an event to "Support Hillary. Save American Muslims!" with a picture of a woman in a hijab beside Hillary Clinton. Another for a group called "Stop A.I." urged viewers to "like and share if you want burqa banned in America," because the full-body covering could be hiding a terrorist.
U.S. intelligence agencies have said the Russian government exploited social media as part of a sprawling, and surreptitious, campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump. The FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating potential ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to tip the election, and prosecutors this week announced the first charges in that probe.
Senators are ripping Facebook, Twitter and Google for missing signs that advertisers with ties to Russia were exploiting their services to sway last year's presidential election.
Many lawmakers, however, were left less than impressed by the social media representatives answers to their probes over the past two days, saying much more work needs to be done in addressing the influence of Russian trolls and bots.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman and Vice Chairman, Sens. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, and Mark Warner, D-Virginia, both charged the sites to "do more" in investigating just how foreign actors were able to manipulate messaging on social media and how targeted ads were able to disseminate misinformation for so long.
"Your companies are just beginning to come to grips with the scale and the depth of the problem," said Chairman Burr.
He added, "Your actions need to catch up to your responsibilities."
An emotional Warner called out the sites for their "less than sufficient" first appearances before lawmakers in addressing the issue of foreign actors.
He said they showed a "lack of resources, lack of commitment and a lack of genuine effort."
The Facebook ads released by members of the House intelligence committee are just a sample of the ones purchased by Russians to sow discord on hot-button issues. In preparation for hearings this week, Facebook disclosed that content generated by a Russian group, the Internet Research Agency, potentially reached as many as 126 million users. Facebook had earlier turned over more than 3,000 advertisements linked to that group.
All three representatives during the Senate's hearing on Wednesday said that while the motive for Russians or bad actors wasn't exactly obvious, it was, as a whole, typically aimed at sowing discord and divisiveness in America.
The social media representatives admitted that some topics that foreign actors raised on their given sites to enflame or embroil dissension in the country post-2016 election, dealt with questioning the electoral college, organizing election protest events, police shootings, racial issues and immigration.
Facebook's Colin Stretch said that the time period in question with regard to that motive continued well after the election as well.
Several ads released Wednesday used broken English and had punctuation mistakes, like a coloring book for Bernie Sanders supported by a group calling itself "LGBT United," which read: "stop taking this whole thing too serious. The coloring is something that suits for all people. ..."
Lawmakers also released an exhibit all of the user account handles that Twitter has identified as being tied to Russia's "Internet Research Agency," amounting to thousands of accounts that were used to spread misinformation over the social media platform.
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