U.S. investigators are gradually piecing together how the Kremlin orchestrated its disinformation campaign using U.S. platforms to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign.
As per a person briefed on Google’s probe on Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections, Google has discovered that Russian agents had spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads on Google Search, Gmail and YouTube in order to impose its will in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
Although the purchase of ads do not appear to be directly linked to a Kremlin-affiliated organization, it however indicates a much broader online effort by Russia to conduct a disinformation campaign, said the source on the condition of anonymity since the details of the internal investigation by Alphabet Inc’s Google is on-going and thus confidential.
Separately, on Monday, Microsoft Corp had stated it was also investigating whether Russians had purchased U.S. election ads on its Bing search engine or in any other Microsoft-owned products and platforms.
Google’s revelation is likely to further deepen scrutiny that the tech giant may have unwittingly played a significant role in enabling Moscow’s agenda; U.S. intelligence agencies had already concluded that Moscow’s goal was to help elect Donald Trump.
As per the source, Google has so far uncovered less than $100,000 in ad spending that are potentially linked to Russian actors.
Already Facebook and Twitter Inc have detected and disclosed the activity of suspected Russian operatives working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a content farm, in St. Petersburg, Russia, who had used their platforms to purchase ads and post politically divisive content in a bid to influence Americans before and after the November 2016 presidential elections.
According to researchers and lawmakers, IRA employs hundreds of “trolls” who flood online platforms with pro-Kremlin content, with much of it being fake or discredited; the bulk of these social media accounts are phony and pose as European or American residents.
Under increasing pressure, Facebook disclosed last month that it had found that IRA had spend $100,000 on its platform; the company has now pledged to be more transparent on how its ads are purchased and targeted.
As per the source, Google’s review has been more robust and thorough than the ones undertaken, so far, by Twitter or Facebook.
Russia’s ad purchases on Google were first reported by the Washington Post.
“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,” said Google’s spokeswoman.
On Sunday, Daily Beast, a news website, reported that the Kremlin had recruited at least two black video bloggers to post video clips on YouTube during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. Posing as Black Lives Matter sympathizers they were sharply critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Despite the fact that their videos were seen only by a couple of hundred people, this is the smoking gun that lawmakers have been wanting that directly links the Russian involvement to real people who were used to spread its propaganda.
On Monday, Richard Blumenthal a Senator from the Democratic party said on MSNBC, “If Vladimir Putin is using Facebook or Google or Twitter to, in effect, destroy our democracy, the American people should know about it”.
Officials from U.S. tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft have been invited to testify publicly about Russian attempts to use their platforms to influence the 2016 U.S. elections before both the House and Senate intelligence committees on November 1.
While Facebook and Twitter have confirmed their plan to attend, Google has yet to do so.