Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee posted Wednesday a selection of the Facebook ads purchased by Russia-linked accounts as the committee’s hearing on how Russia exploited social media during the 2016 election got under way.
The committee Dems posted screenshots of the ads, as well as some of the the meta data associated with the ads, such as the amount of impressions the ads made and to which demographics the ads were targeted. Examples of Russia-purchased ads on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, were among the ads released.
Some of the ads released Wednesday did not mention presidential candidates by name, but rather weighed in on political issues, be it pushing anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiments, or mimicking the Black Lives Matters or LGBT rights movements.
Other ads explicitly advocated for or against particular candidates. One Instagram ad from an account called “american.veterans” said “Killary Clinton will never understand what it feels like to lose the person you love for the sake of your country,” while others touted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). There were some anti-Donald Trump ads among the examples released Wednesday, including a Facebook post for a “Trump is NOT my President” event.
Additionally, House Intel Committee Dems released a list of Twitter handles associated with Russia-linked accounts.
Representatives from Twitter, Facebook and Google were on Capital Hill to testify on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Before appearing in front of the House Intel committee, the representatives from the social media companies testified in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee and in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch’s week did not improve on Wednesday.
Fresh off a hiding Tuesday from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), Stretch appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) read the social media executive the riot act for what he called a refusal to take the problem of foreign interference in elections seriously.
“In meetings with your leadership as you became more aware of this problem, you aggressively promoted the fact that you took down 30,000 accounts around the French elections,” Warner told Stretch. “Now you say not all of those were Russian related. Have you gone back and cross checked those accounts you took down in France to see if they were active in the American election?”
Stretch tried to give a discursive answer, but Warner cut him off. “The accounts related to Russian accounts that you took down, your leadership bragged about how proactive you were in the French election process,” Warner said, “did you check those accounts to see if any of them were active in the American elections?”
Stretch tried for a second non-answer, which appeared to anger Warner. “Just please answer my question,” he said. “Have you reviewed the accounts you took down in France that were Russian related to see if they played any role in the American election?”
Stretch said he was “trying to answer the question.”
“The answer is yes or no,” snapped Warner. Facebook, he said, had looked at the 470 American accounts identified for payment in rubles. Had it applied the same techniques to the accounts seeking to interfere in the European elections “to see if those accounts were active in the United States?”
“I will have to come back to you on that, senator,” Stretch said.
Warner was irate. “Sir, we had this hearing scheduled for months,” he said. “I find your answer very disappointing. On the question of we just discovered you had 80,000 views in terms of Russian views on Facebook. We discover in the last 48 hours 120,000 Russian-based posts on Instagram. Have you done any similar analysis on those 120,000 posts? Know the 80,000 reached 126 million Americans. Have you done the same analysis on the 120,000 posts on Instagram?”
Stretch answered that Facebook had indeed analyzed those posts.
“How many Americans did those touch?” Warner asked.
Far more than Facebook had initially admitted, it turned out. “The data on Instagram is not as complete, but the data we have indicates that beginning in October of 2016, those Instagram posts reached an additional 16 million people in addition to the 126 million people that we identify,” Stretch said.
“Now we’re seeing the Russian activity is roughly at 150 million Americans without knowing how many times they were reshared,” Warner said.
Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer, quickly issued a comment, which also did not answer the question of whether the accounts run in Germany and France were active in the American election. Stamos did say that “[a]ll of the accounts disabled automatically [in the sweep of European disinfo accounts] are still included in our searches for organized disinformation actors like the Internet Research Agency.”
Attorneys working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe said Monday that they were having trouble determining the value of Paul Manafort’s assets, and in court filings posted Tuesday night, the government went into more detail about the wide variations in claims Manafort has allegedly made about his net worth.
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that his company had taken down the account of Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, who lives in the US, on the strength of a report filed to the tech giant by the Chinese government.
Guo, a billionaire living in New York City who is a harsh critic of the Chinese government, published on Facebook “sometimes outlandish tales of deep corruption among family members of top Communist Party officials,” the New York Times wrote a month ago, as it reported that Guo’s account had been taken down.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the pointed question: “[Guo’s] Facebook account was blocked, and Facebook has informed us that he violated terms of service. I think he published personal identifying information about individuals and that violated the terms of service. I understand that argument. My question, what I want to be clear is was there any pressure from the Chinese government to block his account?”
Stretch, initially, appeared to mislead Rubio in his answer: “No, senator, we reviewed a report on that account and analyzed it through regular channels using our regular procedures,” he said. “The blocking was not of the account in its entirety, but I believe was of specific posts that violated our policy.”
Rubio was dubious. “You can testify that you did not come under pressure from the Chinese government or any of its representatives or people working for them to block his account or to block whatever it is you blocked?” he asked.
Put in those terms, Stretch could not, in fact, pull off a denial. “I want to make sure I’m being precise and clear,” he said. “We did receive a report from representatives of the Chinese government about the account. We analyzed that report as we would any other and took action solely based on our policies.”
In a new filing Tuesday, special counsel Robert Mueller argued that Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign aides indicted recently, are a flight risk given the serious nature of the charges, the wealth of the two men, and their extensive travel history.
“As explained below and at the initial appearance in this matter on October 30, 2017, the defendants pose a risk of flight based on the serious nature of the charges, their history of deceptive and misleading conduct, the potentially significant sentences the defendants face, the strong evidence of their guilt, their significant financial resources, and their foreign connections,” the court filing reads.
The document also reveals what federal investigators know about the assets held by Manafort and Gates. Manafort has given various estimates of his wealth between 2012 and 2017, between $19 million and $136 million, with the number fluctuating several times between 2016 and 2017. Most recently, Gates listed his personal liquid assets at $25 million in February 2016 and at $2.2 million in March 2016.
Mueller noted that both have traveled abroad extensively and revealed that Manafort currently has three U.S. passports with different numbers. Manafort has applied for a passport ten times in the last ten years, per the court filing.
Both Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty on Monday to all 12 counts handed down in the indictment alleging a money-laundering scheme. Both have been placed in home confinement with bond set at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates.
Correction: This post originally referred to the bail filing as unsealed on Tuesday. Mueller filed it Tuesday, but it was never sealed.
To those who were anticipating the indictment against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort that became public Monday, the unexpected unsealing of a guilty plea from another Trump campaign aide a little more than an hour later was a major shock.
But Special Counsel Robert Mueller wasn’t just giving close observers of the case a bonus surprise on a day being touted on Twitter as #MuellerMonday. Mueller was sending a message — multiple messages in fact — former federal prosecutors tell TPM and the unsealed court filings themselves suggest.
Former Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis was questioned last week by special counsel Robert Mueller and testified before the investigating grand jury in the inquiries into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, NBC News reported Tuesday.
Clovis served as the supervisor to George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to broker a meeting between the Trump team and Russian government, and who is now cooperating with federal investigators.
A person with first-hand knowledge of the matter told NBC that Clovis’ interviews occurred. Clovis’ lawyer, Victoria Toensing, told the network she would not “get into that,” but confirmed that Clovis was the unnamed “campaign supervisor” referenced in court documents about Papadopoulos’ plea.
In those documents, Clovis told Papadopoulos he’d done “great work” with his initial outreach to Russians who wanted to set up a meeting with the campaign. In Aug. 2016, Clovis also said he “would encourage” Papadopoulos to set up an “off the record” meeting with Russian officials in Europe “if it is feasible.”
Toensing told NBC that the campaign strictly prohibited staffers from making trips abroad on behalf of the campaign, but that Papadopoulos would have been allowed to do so in his capacity as a private citizen.
The FBI has said that no such trip ever occurred.
Hints that the FBI had interviewed other Trump advisers cropped up in the U.S. government’s motion to seal Papadopoulos plea agreement, which was among the documents about his case made public Monday. Federal prosecutors requested that details about the case remain quiet to allow campaign officials to be questioned before they learned that Papadopoulos was cooperating.
“The government will very shortly seek, among other investigate steps, to interview certain individuals who may have knowledge of contacts between Russian nationals (or Russia-connected foreign nationals) and the campaign, including the contacts between the defendant and foreign nationals set forth in the Statement of Offense,” the document reads.
The FBI agent whose affidavit was attached to the motion made almost exactly the same point.
Clovis is currently awaiting Senate confirmation before the Agriculture Committee to serve as the U.S. Agriculture Department’s chief scientist, though he is not a scientist.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that she was “not aware that any change” in Clovis’ nomination would be “necessary at this time.”
Former Trump adviser George Papadopolous’ newly-released plea agreement is littered with the redacted names of other campaign officials he allegedly informed about his efforts to hook them up with Russian nationals, making prosecutors’ claims rather hard to follow.
TPM’s design team has gone through the document and plugged in the missing names of those senior campaign staffers, as identified by the Washington Post, to make it easier to parse.
Per the Post’s reporting, the “high-ranking campaign official” was former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; “another high-ranking campaign official” was campaign chairman Paul Manafort; “another campaign official” was chairman Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates. The “campaign supervisor” was campaign co-chair and policy adviser Sam Clovis, as his attorney confirmed to the newspaper. And one “senior policy advisor” referenced in the document has yet to be identified.
That was Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, in a moment that seemed to stretch out to an hour during Tuesday afternoon’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Russian election interference on social media.
Facebook, Twitter and Google all sent their lawyers to answer lawmakers’ questions, but Kennedy, who began his question round by complimenting Stretch’s resume, was prepared. In just a few minutes, he forced Stretch to admit that Facebook had far less insight into its advertisers than it did into each individual user.
“Mr. Stretch, how many advertisers does Facebook have?” Kennedy asked sleepily, after thanking the three tech giants for being American companies.
“We have approximately 5 million advertisers on a monthly basis, Senator,” Stretch replied.
“Did China run ads in the last election cycle? That tried to impact our election?” Kennedy asked.
“Not that I’m aware of, senator,” Stretch answered.
“Not that you’re aware of. Did Turkmenistan?”
Kennedy asked about ads from Turkmenistan and from North Korea, each time getting a variation of “I’m not aware” in response.
“How could you be aware?” Kennedy eventually snapped. “I mean, this is—this—you’ve got 5 million advertisers? And you’re going to tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of all of those advertisements? If I want to hire a lawyer, if I wanted to hire you when you were in private practice, you have an incredible resume, and say, let’s go through about four shell corporations. I want to go through four or five shell corporations, because I want to hide my identity. You’re telling me you have the ability to go—to trace through all of these corporations and find the true identity of every one of your advertisers. You’re not telling me that, are you?”
After a little more back-and-forth, Stretch, exasperated, caved.
“To your question about seeing essentially behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no,” he said. “We cannot see behind the activity.”
Kennedy then appeared to switch gears. Were he to join Facebook as an advertiser, he would need to buy targeted advertising, he told Stretch, “and you can help me narrow down. Because that’s your business model. You collect data, and lease it out to companies who use that data to sell people products, services and candidates. Isn’t that basically your business model?”
Stretch seemed to sense what was coming. “Senator, we do provide targeted advertising. We don’t actually share the data of individuals with advertisers,” he said.
“Right,” Kennedy replied. “Do you have a profile on me?”
After a beat Stretch replied: “Senator, if you’re a Facebook user, we would permit you to be targeted with an advertisement based on your characteristics and your likes, along with other people who share similar characteristics.”
That raised an even less comfortable question from Kennedy, who proposed, “Let’s suppose your CEO came to you—not you, but somebody who could do it in your company. Maybe you could. And said, ‘I want to know everything we can find out about Sen. Graham. I want to know the movies he likes, I want to know the bars he goes to. I want to know who his friends are. I want to know what schools he goes—went to.’ You could do that, couldn’t you?”
Stretch said Facebook could not know those things, which Kennedy wasn’t buying.
“You can’t put a name to a face to a piece of data?” Kennedy asked. “You’re telling me that?”
“We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that, to protect the privacy of our users,” Stretch replied.
“I understand,” Kennedy said. “But you can get around that to find that identity, can’t you?”
Stretch dropped the “we” for his next answer: “No, senator. I cannot.”
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch on Tuesday offered broad details about the way Russian ads were targeted on the platform, something journalists and citizen groups have been agitating for.
Stretch said only a quarter of the ads were specifically geotargeted, however.
“The advertising targeting that was used, in the main, was a combination of very broad geographic targeting,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Most of the ads, about 75 percent of we have given you, was targeted to the United States as a whole. And a quarter of the ads were targeted at a more granular level to states. And they were targeted to interest groups. So we have various what we call like-based or interest-based targeting that was apparently intended to attract people who were following the causes you’ve identified.”