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Facebook sold $100,000 of political ads to fake Russian accounts during 2016 US election

Ads were intended to sow divisiveness, Facebook’s head of security says

Fake accounts probably operated from Russia bought thousands of divisive advertisements on Facebook during the 2016 US election, the social media giant has said.

The revelation could offer the latest evidence of wide-ranging Russian efforts to interfere with the election, a destabilisation campaign that American intelligence agencies believe proceeded under the direct orders of President Vladimir Putin. Facebook did not mention Mr Putin in a blog post explaining the ad purchases but noted that it was examining “serious claims” tying Russian disruption to Facebook.

According to the post, signed by Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, the adverts were more focused on sowing disunity than on promoting a particular candidate. They sought to augment “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum” on topics that included guns, immigration and race, Mr Stamos wrote.

That alleged effort to widen social fissures echoes the conclusion of American intelligence agencies, who said in a declassified report on Russian election interference that while Russia sought to specifically undercut Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the country also aimed more broadly to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”.

Facebook has shut down the roughly 470 “inauthentic” counts, which together spent about $100,000 to generate roughly 3,000 adverts, Mr Stamos said.

While Mr Stamos’s post did not provide further information on the Russian actors allegedly involved, The Washington Post reported that Facebook representatives told congressional investigators probing election meddling that the adverts emanated from a pro-Kremlin “troll farm”.

Donald Trump defends 'wonderful' son's meeting with Russian lawyer

In their report, American intelligence agencies detailed a multifaceted “propaganda machine” that seeks to project its influence through a variety of channels. That included enlisting “pro-Kremlin social media actors” and paid “trolls”, the report said.

As a dominant conduit for information, Facebook has faced scrutiny for its role in disseminating inaccurate or fabricated stories, often with a partisan slant, during a particularly acrid election campaign. Shortly after the election, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg vowed new measures to combat misinformation.

The site has since rolled out initiatives to limit the reach of click-bait stories with disingenuous headlines and, last week, said it would no longer accept advertisements from sites that repeatedly post fake news. Mr Stamos wrote that the website is attentive to the “authenticity of the connections people make on our platform”.

“We know we have to stay vigilant to keep ahead of people who try to misuse our platform,” Mr Stamos wrote.

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