Stay calm about Rus­sian Face­book ads

The Garden Island - - Morning Briefing - BYRON YORK

The lat­est ex­cite­ment in the Trump-Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a set of Face­book ads linked to Rus­sia, about 3,000 in all, that some of the pres­i­dent’s ad­ver­saries hope will prove the Trump cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia in the 2016 elec­tion.

“A num­ber of Rus­sian-linked Face­book ads specif­i­cally tar­geted Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin, two states cru­cial to Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory last Novem­ber,” CNN re­ported re­cently. Some of the ads, the net­work con­tin­ued, ap­peared “highly so­phis­ti­cated in their tar­get­ing of key de­mo­graphic groups in ar­eas of the states that turned out to be piv­otal” to Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory.

In ad­di­tion, the re­port noted, the ads seemed tai­lor-made for the Trump cam­paign. “The ads em­ployed a se­ries of di­vi­sive mes­sages aimed at break­ing through the clut­ter of cam­paign ads on­line, in­clud­ing pro­mot­ing anti-Mus­lim mes­sages, sources said,” CNN re­ported, sug­gest­ing that anti-Mus­lim con­tent could have been de­signed to com­ple­ment can­di­date Trump’s mes­sage.

Put aside whether Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin were in fact “cru­cial” to Trump’s vic­tory. (He would still have won the pres­i­dency even if he had lost both.) The the­ory is that Rus­sians could not have pulled off such “highly so­phis­ti­cated” tar­get­ing by them­selves and there­fore may have had help from the Trump cam­paign or its as­so­ci­ates.

But is that the whole story? Not ac­cord­ing to a govern­ment of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the Face­book ads, who of­fers a strik­ingly dif­fer­ent as­sess­ment. What fol­lows is from the of­fi­cial and from pub­lic state­ments by Face­book it­self:

1) Of the group of 3,000 ads turned over to Con­gress by Face­book, a ma­jor­ity of the im­pres­sions came af­ter the elec­tion, not be­fore. In­deed, in an Oct. 2 news re­lease, Face­book said 56 per­cent of the ads’ im­pres­sions came af­ter the 2016 vote.

2) Twenty-five per­cent of the ads were never seen by any­body. (Face­book also re­vealed that in the news re­lease.)

3) Most of the ads, which Face­book es­ti­mates were seen by 10 mil­lion peo­ple in the U.S., never men­tioned the elec­tion or any can­di­date. “The vast ma­jor­ity of ads run by th­ese ac­counts didn’t specif­i­cally ref­er­ence the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, vot­ing or a par­tic­u­lar can­di­date,” Face­book said in a Sept. 6 news re­lease.

4) A rel­a­tively small num­ber of the ads -- again, about 25 per­cent -- were ge­o­graph­i­cally tar­geted. (Face­book also re­vealed that on Sept. 6.)

5) The ads that were ge­o­graph­i­cally tar­geted were all over the map. “Of those that were tar­geted, nu­mer­ous other lo­cales be­sides Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin, in­clud­ing non-bat­tle­ground states like Texas, were tar­geted,” the govern­ment of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the ads said, via email.

6) Very few ads specif­i­cally tar­geted Wis­con­sin or Michi­gan. “Of the hun­dreds of pre-elec­tion ads with one or more im­pres­sions, less than a dozen ads tar­geted Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin com­bined,” the of­fi­cial said.

7) By and large, the ads tar­get­ing Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin did not run in the gen­eral elec­tion. “Nearly all of th­ese Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin ads ran in 2015 and also ran in other states,” the of­fi­cial said.

8) The Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin ads were not widely seen. “The ma­jor­ity of th­ese Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan ads had less than 1,000 im­pres­sions,” the of­fi­cial said.

9) The Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin ads (like those ev­ery­where else) were low-bud­get. “The buy for the ma­jor­ity of th­ese Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin ads (paid in rubles) was equiv­a­lent to ap­prox­i­mately $10,” the of­fi­cial said.

10) The ads just weren’t very good. The lan­guage used in some of the ads “clearly shows the ad writer was not a na­tive English speaker,” the of­fi­cial said. In ad­di­tion, the set of ads turned over by Face­book also con­tained “click- bait-type ads that had noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics.” And in gen­eral, the of­fi­cial’s view is that the ads sim­ply were not ter­ri­bly so­phis­ti­cated, con­trary to how they have been por­trayed.

None of this proves any­thing about the Face­book part of the Trump-Rus­sia af­fair. It doesn’t prove there was no col­lu­sion, and it cer­tainly doesn’t prove there was. But it does sug­gest this par­tic­u­lar set of ads might not be a very big deal.

In an Oct. 4 news con­fer­ence, the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chair­man, Re­pub­li­can Sen. Richard Burr, did not play up the Face­book an­gle. “I think if you look from 10,000 feet, the sub­ject mat­ter of the ads was -- seems to have been to cre­ate chaos in ev­ery group that they could pos­si­bly iden­tify in Amer­ica,” Burr said.

Burr elab­o­rated, adding, “If we used solely the so­cial me­dia that we have seen, there’s no way that you can look at that and say that that was to help the right side of the ide­o­log­i­cal chart and not the left. Or vice versa. They were in­dis­crim­i­nate.”

Burr noted that he has no ob­jec­tion to Face­book re­leas­ing the ads pub­licly. Cer­tainly do­ing so would go a long way to­ward clear­ing up the pub­lic’s un­der­stand­ing of the is­sue.

Like ev­ery­thing else in the Trump-Rus­sia af­fair, peo­ple need to know what hap­pened. ••• Byron York is chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner.

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