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Five Things to Know About Hidden Russian Influence on Facebook, Twitter, Google

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10/05/2017 | 01:15pm CET
By Georgia Wells and Natalie Andrews 

Last month, Facebook Inc. disclosed that hundreds of accounts with ties to Russia bought divisive advertising on its site, fueling intelligence-community concerns that Moscow used technology platforms to disrupt last year's U.S. presidential election.

Since then, Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have said they are also probing potential Russian influence on their own sites.

Congressional investigations looking into Russian interference in the election have ensnared the three tech titans, and some observers say they believe the recent disclosures are only the tip of the iceberg.

Here are five key things to know:

How did Russian actors use social media before and after the election?

Russian actors allegedly ran ads and posts on social media--on hot-button topics such as immigration, gun rights and race issues--meant to sow political and social division in the U.S.

Facebook said it identified 470 "inauthentic" Russian-backed accounts that spent $100,000 on 3,000 ads. An additional 2,200 ads, on which was spent $50,000, may also have Russian ties, Facebook said. The company estimated 10 million people saw the ads, which started in June 2015 and ran through May 2017. However, regular posts--not paid ads--appeared on some of the Russian-backed pages as recently as August.

On Twitter, legions of bots, or automated accounts, distributed misleading content about how to vote and attempted to influence the lists of trending topics to make certain ideas appear more popular. Twitter last week said it has found 201 accounts on its service linked to Russian actors that Facebook already identified. Twitter also said Moscow-backed news site RT, which a U.S. intelligence report said aimed to meddle in the election, bought $274,100 of ads last year.

Why do lawmakers think there was more Russian influence than what has already been revealed?

Congressional investigators believe there are likely more accounts on Twitter that aren't linked to the Facebook accounts that were shut down. Investigators are also talking with Google, which said last month it found no evidence that it had sold election-related ads to Russian actors. But Google's internal investigation could turn up other kinds of hidden influence, for instance on its video site YouTube.

Facebook cautioned this week that it may not have uncovered all the malicious activity that attempted to interfere in the American political process. The focus so far has been on ads, which were often aimed at getting people to follow the pages of the Russian-backed accounts, which could then serve up other content to them, such as videos that allegedly showed police violence toward blacks or anti-immigration propaganda.

All three companies are scheduled to appear in a public Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about these issues on Nov. 1.

Did the social-media companies know Russian-linked actors were using their sites?

The social-media companies have said they didn't know this was happening during the election, or even for many months after: Earlier in the summer, Facebook said it found no evidence of the activity it disclosed in September. Under political pressure, Facebook on Monday submitted the 3,000 ads to the House and Senate intelligence panels.

Facebook said it suspended the 470 Russia-linked accounts for misrepresenting their identity, not for the content they posted. Twitter said Russia and other former Soviet countries have been a hotbed for bots and spam accounts for many years.

What other ways did Russia allegedly interfere in the election?

According to the January report from the U.S. intelligence community, the highest levels of the Russian government were involved in directing the electoral interference to help Donald Trump at the expense of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Russia's tactics included efforts to hack state election systems; infiltrating and leaking information from party committees and political strategists; and disseminating through social media and other outlets negative stories about Mrs. Clinton and positive ones about Mr. Trump, the report said.

Russia has denied meddling in the U.S. election. Mr. Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Russia and has called the investigation a "witch hunt."

The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), said Wednesday "the issue of collusion is still open" and the Senate panel has made no conclusions. He said he hopes to have his investigation wrapped up by the end of the year.

How do I know if I saw Russian content?

Facebook hasn't yet made public the ads that the 470 Russia-backed accounts ran and it has taken down the pages. The names of several of the accounts have surfaced, such as "Secured Borders," "Heart of Texas," "Being Patriotic" and "Blacktivist." Some lawmakers have said Facebook's full data set of 3,000 Russian-backed ads should be made public.

Write to Georgia Wells at [email protected] and Natalie Andrews at [email protected]

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