WASHINGTON — Russian-linked ads on Facebook specifically targeted key groups of people in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states that helped propel President Donald Trump to victory last November, according to reports by CNN this morning.
CNN cited four unidentified sources the news network said had direct knowledge of the ads. It did not reveal the content of the ads, when they ran on Facebook or which demographic groups they may have targeted.
More on Facebook and the election:
Facebook did not immediately return a request for comment by the Free Press.
The report comes as Facebook faces criticism for accepting ads backed by Russian interests that apparently sought to influence the 2016 presidential election. Congress and the Department of Justice are investigating the impact and scope of Russian attempts to influence the election, which Trump has downplayed.
This week, Facebook said some 10 million people viewed Russia-linked advertising, 44% of whom saw it before the voting took place Nov. 8. The CNN report appeared to be the first linking the Russia-backed ads directly to Michigan.
Without providing specifics, CNN said some of the Russian-backed ads “appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal,” according to two of the sources.
Sources also told CNN that the ads “employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages.”
At a news conference today, two leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee did not confirm or refer specifically to the CNN report of people in Michigan being targeted but spoke generally about concerns that Facebook and other social media outlets provided a means by which Russian interests may have tried to target voters.
The committee, which is among those investigating potential Russian involvement in the election, has invited representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google to participate in an open hearing Nov. 1 at which the Russian-backed ads and content — and their potential impact — is expected to be discussed.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.., the committee’s chairman, said that there has been no evidence so far that a single vote tally was changed by Russian interference, though the Department of Homeland Security has said that Russia may have attempted to try to hack into as many as 21 states’ election systems. Michigan was not among them.
Social media has come under fire for not doing more to ward off Russian accounts leading up to and after the 2016 election through which inflammatory ads or purported news stories may have been purchased or posted to sway opinion.
Warner, who said he wants to see the ads made public, said he was initially “concerned that social media companies did not take this threat seriously enough” but that “they are recognizing that threat now.” Foreign individuals and groups are prohibited by law from spending money on U.S. elections.
Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes out of more than 4.5 million cast or less than 1%, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Trump also won Wisconsin by less than 1% of the vote, the first time that state backed a Republican nominee since 1984.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are widely seen as the keys to Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. It was the first time all three had voted for a Republican nominee since 1984.
Contact Todd Spangler at 703-854-8947 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.
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