If Rus­sian oper­a­tives

Ex­perts sus­pect $150K pur­chase was a trial run

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Peter Stone and Greg Gor­don Mc­Clatchy Washington Bureau

are dis­guis­ing Face­book ad­ver­tis­ing by us­ing U.S.-based in­ter­me­di­aries, in­ves­ti­ga­tors may only be able to trace the ori­gins of those ads with the Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ant’s help.

WASHINGTON — Some cy­ber in­dus­try ex­perts sus­pect that Rus­sians’ newly re­vealed pur­chase of $150,000 in elec­tion-re­lated Face­book ads was merely a trial run for a much big­ger, more se­cre­tive op­er­a­tion aimed at help­ing Don­ald Trump win the White House.

To dis­cover the truth, the ex­perts say, con­gres­sional and Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors will need to dig deep, trac­ing the spon­sor­ship and ac­tual fi­nanc­ing of ev­ery unique ad that raises sus­pi­cions — es­pe­cially those con­tain­ing fake news.

The Face­book ads — di­vulged last week but yet to be made pub­lic or shared with con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors — were easy to iden­tify be­cause they came from ac­counts based in Rus­sia.

If Rus­sian oper­a­tives dis­guised ad­di­tional Face­book ad­ver­tis­ing by us­ing U.S.based in­ter­me­di­aries, in­ves­ti­ga­tors may only be able to trace the ori­gins of those ads with the Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ant’s help.

The dis­closed spend­ing was likely a de­tailed “test buy” in which a Krem­lin­con­nected “troll farm” bought thou­sands of ads through a maze of phony ac­counts “to see what works,” said a per­son with knowl­edge of Face­book’s oper­a­tions.

If that’s true, it would be rel­a­tively easy for Face­book to search its records and learn who bought ads and whether, as well as how, the ads were tar­geted, said this per­son, who in­sisted upon anonymity to pro­tect re­la­tion­ships.

Robert Mueller, the Jus­tice Depart­ment spe­cial coun­sel who is lead­ing crim­i­nal and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tions into whether Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sian dig­i­tal oper­a­tives, has re­sources to try to un­ravel the fi­nan­cial trail if front com­pa­nies or non­prof­its are dis­cov­ered to have spon­sored sus­pi­cious ads.

On Wed­nes­day, Bloomberg News quoted a source who said Rus­sia’s use of so­cial me­dia to spread dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Trump’s Demo­cratic op­po­nent, Hil­lary Clin­ton, is a “red hot” fo­cus of Mueller’s in­quiries.

Still un­cer­tain is how deeply the House and Senate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tees will in­ves­ti­gate, given their more mod­est re­sources and that the pan­els are led by Repub­li­cans who have shown some re­luc­tance to pur­sue leads that cast doubt on the elec­tion of a GOP pres­i­dent.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chair­man of the Senate panel, said Tues­day that he wants “a full ac­count­ing” from Face­book and other so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies of any Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the cam­paign. He of­fered no de­tails of what that means.

“We’ve only scratched the sur­face,” said Mike Car­pen­ter, a for­mer se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial who fo­cused on Rus­sia. “In due time, I think we’ll learn of other Rus­sian fronts us­ing Face­book and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms like Twit­ter to dis­sem­i­nate po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated dis­in­for­ma­tion.

“It’s also worth re­mem­ber­ing that the Krem­lin’s dis­in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tions sub­con­tract a lot of the less so­phis­ti­cated pro­pa­ganda work to sur­ro­gates in other coun­tries who are com­pen­sated via the Dark Web, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to fol­low the money trail,” Car­pen­ter added.

He also said he be­lieves the Rus­sians sought to sup­press vot­ing by se­lect groups of Demo­cratic vot­ers who would be ex­pected to vote for Clin­ton.

Whether the com­mit­tees will is­sue sweep­ing sub­poe­nas to the so­cial me­dia gi­ants could be key in de­ter­min­ing how much more in­for­ma­tion emerges. Be­cause of its pledges of client con­fi­den­tial­ity, Face­book may pre­fer the le­gal pro­tec­tion of be­ing sub­poe­naed be­fore sur­ren­der­ing in­for­ma­tion in a na­tional se­cu­rity in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A Face­book spokesman said Wed­nes­day the com­pany “will con­tinue to in­ves­ti­gate and will con­tinue our co­op­er­a­tion with the rel­e­vant in­ves­tiga­tive au­thor­i­ties look­ing into that sub­ject.”

Google Inc., which owns YouTube, the enor­mous plat­form that cir­cu­lates videos, some of which are paid ads, is “al­ways mon­i­tor­ing for abuse or vi­o­la­tions of our poli­cies, and we’ve seen no ev­i­dence this type of ad cam­paign was run on our plat­forms,” com­pany spokes­woman An­drea Fav­ille said. She de­clined to elab­o­rate, ex­cept to say that the com­pany will co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

The Senate com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat, Vir­ginia Sen. Mark Warner, has called Rus­sia’s dis­clo­sure “the tip of the ice­berg” and is urg­ing Burr to pro­ceed ag­gres­sively. He noted this week that Face­book dis­cov­ered and shut down nearly 50,000 in­au­then­tic Rus­sian ac­counts be­fore the French elec­tions in June.

“I be­lieve the Rus­sians were at least as ac­tive if not more ac­tive in the Amer­i­can elec­tions than they were in the French elec­tions,” said Warner, who pre­vi­ously headed a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany.

Warner also voiced dis­ap­point­ment with Face­book over its fail­ure, dur­ing a brief­ing for House and Senate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee staffers last week, to dis­close that Rus­sian oper­a­tives pro­moted live events such as an anti-im­mi­gra­tion gath­er­ing spon­sored by Se­curedBorders in Twin Falls, Idaho, last year.

Mc­Clatchy re­ported in July that both Mueller and the con­gres­sional com­mit­tees are in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign’s dig­i­tal oper­a­tions and Rus­sia’s Trump­slanted cy­ber­med­dling.

Jared Kush­ner, Trump’s son-in-law who over­saw the cam­paign’s dig­i­tal oper­a­tions, is ex­pected to make a se­cond ap­pear­ance be­fore the Senate com­mit­tee soon, where he will be ques­tioned by its mem­bers, said a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. Sub­jects of in­ter­est in­clude the pos­si­bil­ity that he co­or­di­nated with the Rus­sians in help­ing them tar­get ads to spe­cific vot­ers, said the source, who in­sisted upon anonymity be­cause the mat­ter is se­cret.

Face­book’s plat­form of­fered a spe­cial op­por­tu­nity to tar­get cer­tain vot­ers — a strat­egy on which the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns spent heav­ily.

If an ad buyer pro­vides Face­book with a state’s voter reg­is­tra­tion data­base or a list of vot­ers who sup­ported ei­ther Clin­ton or Trump, Face­book can match it with peo­ple based on their race, views on gun rights or other char­ac­ter­is­tics, said David Stroup, who ran Warner’s dig­i­tal oper­a­tions dur­ing his 2014 Senate cam­paign.

“That’s where some magic hap­pens at Face­book,” he said. “You can tell it to cre­ate what they call a look-alike au­di­ence.”

“Any­one can post an ad on Face­book,” said Michal Kosin­ski, a Stan­ford Univer­sity psy­chol­o­gist who has spent years re­search­ing how Face­book data can be used to sway peo­ple’s views. “There’s no ver­i­fi­ca­tion of your name. This ba­si­cally means it’s vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to con­trol this space.”

Not ev­ery­one is quick to sign on to the view that the Rus­sians’ cy­ber on­slaught was nec­es­sar­ily stealthy.

Asha Ran­gappa, a for­mer FBI coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence agent, said Rus­sia was en­gag­ing in both covert and overt oper­a­tions and “they weren’t putting all their eggs in one bas­ket.”


Rus­sians’ pur­chase of $150,000 in elec­tion-re­lated Face­book ads was likely a trial run for a larger, se­cre­tive op­er­a­tion.

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