Google finds links to Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion in its ser­vices

The Myanmar Times - - International Business -

RUS­SIAN op­er­a­tives bought ads across sev­eral of Google’s ser­vices with­out the com­pany’s knowl­edge, the latest ev­i­dence that their cam­paign to in­flu­ence U.S. vot­ers was as sprawl­ing as it was so­phis­ti­cated in de­ploy­ing the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try’s most pow­er­ful tools.

The rev­e­la­tion about Google, made by peo­ple fa­mil­iar with an in­ter­nal com­pany in­ves­ti­ga­tion, adds it to a grow­ing list of iconic tech com­pa­nies used by a dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion that U.S. in­tel­li­gences ser­vices have said was ap­proved by the Krem­lin. Twit­ter and Facebook al­ready had dis­closed some Rus­sian ac­counts, and U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors say other com­pa­nies likely were ex­ploited as well.

Google found that tens of thou­sands of dol­lars were spent on ads by Rus­sian agents whose tar­gets in­cluded Google’s YouTube and gmail ser­vices, along with the com­pany’s sig­na­ture search engine and its Dou­bleClick ad net­work, said the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss mat­ters that had not been made pub­lic. Google, which said last month it had found no signs of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence, runs the world’s largest on­line advertising busi­ness, and YouTube is the world’s largest on­line video site.

Adding to the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­cov­ery, the Rus­sian ads bought on Google do not ap­pear to be the work of the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, the shad­owy Rus­sian troll farm linked to pre­vi­ous dis­clo­sures by com­pa­nies. Facebook has said that it, too, has been study­ing thou­sands of ads that may have been bought by op­er­a­tives work­ing some­where other than the In­ter­net Re­search Agency.

The rev­e­la­tions add to the ev­i­dence that the Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign had not only mul­ti­ple tar­gets among U.S. tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies but also mul­ti­ple cen­ters of op­er­a­tions.

“We see the Rus­sia pres­ence on so­cial me­dia metas­ta­siz­ing,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of Cal­i­for­nia, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. “The ex­tent of the Rus­sian pres­ence just con­tin­ues to grow and grow, and I don’t think we yet have any kind of full un­der­stand­ing of just how ex­pan­sive this pres­ence may have been.”

Schiff said con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors will ask the com­pa­nies “why it has taken them so long to dis­cover the Rus­sian use of their tech­nol­ogy and how thor­ough their foren­sic ef­fort has been, what the im­ped­i­ments are, and how much work re­mains to be done, and, of course, most im­por­tantly, how are they go­ing to fer­ret this out in the fu­ture.”

Re­searchers have said that a com­bi­na­tion of ef­forts - both paid and free posts - reached many mil­lions of peo­ple de­spite the rel­a­tively mod­est dol­lar to­tals re­ported so far. Dis­in­for­ma­tion flowed more heav­ily to vot­ers in bat­tle­ground states, po­ten­tially am­pli­fy­ing the elec­toral im­pact, ac­cord­ing to Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Project on Com­pu­ta­tional Pro­pa­ganda.

Sev­eral in­de­pen­dent re­searchers also have found that the Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion flowed across plat­forms and onto the wider Web, tak­ing ad­van­tage of tech­nol­ogy that al­lows ad­ver­tis­ers to iden­tify po­ten­tial vot­ers and fol­low and re-tar­get ads to them based on their po­lit­i­cal in­cli­na­tions. The goal was to in­flu­ence vot­ing behavior, in some cases by sup­press­ing turnout.

“It’s a sys­tem,” said Jonathan Al­bright, re­search di­rec­tor of the Tow Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Jour­nal­ism at Columbia Univer­sity. He has stud­ied the Rus­sian cam­paign for sev­eral months. “It’s so­cial-me­dia mar­ket­ing at an ex­pert level . . . . This is very well ex­e­cuted.”

Google’s in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion found $4,700 of search ads and dis­play ads that the com­pany be­lieves are Rus­sian-con­nected, and found $53,000 of ads with po­lit­i­cal con­tent that were pur­chased from Rus­sian In­ter­net providers, build­ing ad­dresses or with Rus­sian cur­rency, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion said.

Google al­lows po­lit­i­cal tar­get­ing for two cat­e­gories - left-lean­ing and rightlean­ing - a far more lim­ited set of op­tions than the thou­sands of ways to slice and dice cat­e­gories on Facebook. Google has not found ev­i­dence that the ac­counts linked to Rus­sia used its po­lit­i­cal tar­get­ing tools, the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with its in­ves­ti­ga­tion said.

One Rus­sian-linked ac­count spent $7,000 on ads to pro­mote a doc­u­men­tary called “You’ve Been Trumped,” a film about Don­ald Trump’s ef­forts to build a golf course in Scot­land along an en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive coast­line, these peo­ple said. An­other spent $36,000 on ads ques­tion­ing whether Pres­i­dent Barack Obama needed to re­sign. An­other bought ads to pro­mote po­lit­i­cal mer­chan­dise for Obama.

Google said in a state­ment Monday, after The Wash­ing­ton Post first re­ported on the Rus­sian-linked ads on the com­pany’s ser­vices, “We have a set of strict ads poli­cies in­clud­ing lim­its on po­lit­i­cal ad tar­get­ing and pro­hi­bi­tions on tar­get­ing based on race and re­li­gion. We are tak­ing a deeper look to in­ves­ti­gate at­tempts to abuse our sys­tems, work­ing with re­searchers and other com­pa­nies, and will pro­vide as­sis­tance to on­go­ing inquiries.”

Facebook said last week that mod­el­ing showed that 10 mil­lion peo­ple saw the Rus­sian-bought ads bought by the 470 pages and ac­counts con­trolled by the In­ter­net Re­search Agency. But Al­bright, the Columbia so­cial me­dia re­searcher, re­ported soon after that free Facebook con­tent af­fil­i­ated with just six of those 470 pages and ac­counts likely reached the news feeds of users hun­dreds of mil­lions of times.

Al­bright also has found links to Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion on Pin­ter­est, YouTube and In­sta­gram, as well as Twit­ter, Facebook and Google. Click­ing on links on any of these sites al­lowed Rus­sian op­er­a­tives to iden­tify and track Web users wher­ever they went on the In­ter­net.

For in­stance, two Facebook ac­counts that were re­moved in con­nec­tion to the Rus­sian troll farm - Be­ing Pa­tri­otic and Black­tivist - had cor­re­spond­ing Twit­ter and In­sta­gram ac­counts, Al­bright said, re­flect­ing a highly co­or­di­nated ef­fort across plat­forms. An­other ac­count, Heart of Texas, ap­peared to spread photos across the so­cial book­mark­ing site Pin­ter­est.

Pin­ter­est did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. In­sta­gram is owned by Facebook.

All of these plat­forms, work­ing to­gether, helped im­prove the per­for­mance of the con­tent on Facebook as well as Google’s search rank­ings, said Al­bright. And when the cam­paign could suc­cess­fully di­rect Amer­i­can vot­ers to YouTube, they found slickly pro­duced dis­in­for­ma­tion videos to help shape their po­lit­i­cal views in line with Rus­sian goals.

Twit­ter has said that it has shut down 201 ac­counts as­so­ci­ated with the In­ter­net Re­search Agency. It also dis­closed that the ac­count for the news site RT, which the com­pany linked to the Krem­lin, spent $274,100 on its plat­form in 2016.

Twit­ter has not said how many times the Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion was shared. The com­pany is in­ves­ti­gat­ing that and try­ing to map the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Rus­sian ac­counts and well-known me­dia per­son­al­i­ties as well as in­flu­encers as­so­ci­ated with the cam­paigns of Don­ald Trump and other can­di­dates, said a per­son fa­mil­iar with Twit­ter’s in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. RT also has a siz­able pres­ence on YouTube.

Twit­ter de­clined to com­ment for this story.

Ex­ec­u­tives for Facebook and Twit­ter will tes­tify be­fore con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors on Nov. 1.

Google has not said whether it will ac­cept a sim­i­lar in­vi­ta­tion to do so.

Google dis­cov­ered the Rus­sian pres­ence on its plat­forms by si­phon­ing data from Twit­ter, the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with Google’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion said. Twit­ter of­fers out­siders the abil­ity to ac­cess a small amount of his­tor­i­cal tweets free, and charges de­vel­op­ers for ac­cess to the en­tire Twit­ter fire hose of data stem­ming back to 2006.

Google down­loaded the data from Twit­ter and was able to link Rus­sian Twit­ter ac­counts to other ac­counts that had used Google’s ser­vices to buy ads, the peo­ple said. This was done with­out the explicit co­op­er­a­tion of Twit­ter, the peo­ple said.

Google’s probe is in its early stages, the peo­ple said. Google is con­tin­u­ing to ex­am­ine its own records and also is shar­ing data with Facebook.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post

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