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Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.

Articles by Sam

“Do you have a profile on me?”

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.”

 

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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.”

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A Google executive told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the company had discovered two Russian-operated ad accounts that spent $4,700, and also had found 1,100 YouTube videos it suspects were part of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

On YouTube, we found 18 channels with approximately 1,100 videos that were uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this effort, and that contained political content,” Richard Salgado, himself a former Department of Justice official, told the committee.

These videos mostly had low view counts, just 3 percent of them had more than 5,000 views. And constituted only around 43 hours of YouTube content,” he continued. “While this is relatively small, people watch over 1 billion hours of YouTube content a day, 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute, we understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious.” 

Salgado observed that while YouTube doesn’t offer geotargeting, links to the suspected Russian videos were often posted to platforms that did. He also obliquely referred to “safeguards we had in place in advance of the election” that limited Google’s exposure to the Russian campaign. 

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A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the social media portion of Russia’s 2016 election interference opened Tuesday with portentous statements from Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the latter of whom rattled off some numbers that gave the fullest picture yet of the extent of the disinformation campaign.

“Facebook has identified 470 accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency,” Feinstein said, referring to a Russian troll farm. “Twitter has identified 2,752 IRA-related accounts and almost 37,000 Russian linked accounts that generated automated election content. From what we’ve seen so far, Russian backed trolls used fake accounts on Facebook for more than 3,000 paid advertisements.”

Reports out Monday said Facebook would tell lawmakers that those advertisements reached approximately 126 million people.

The Twitter revelations, however, are far more significant: The platform appears to have identified not just the accounts run directly by Russian trolls working for the IRA (now the Federal News Agency, or FAN), but 37,000 automated accounts that generated information that would promote Russian interests in the American election.

Twitter and Facebook representatives opened their statements with apologies and began to detail how they planned to review previous posts and change rules to thwart future disinformation campaigns.

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During the Trump administration’s very first week in office, the seeds were planted for the initial charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

Thanks to an indictment unsealed Monday morning, we now know former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos lied about the extent of his Russian contacts in an interview with FBI agents on Jan. 27, exactly one week after the inauguration. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to making false statements in that interview about his Russian contacts.

Mueller’s appointment didn’t come until May, after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the bureau’s probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election—and the collection of evidence for that investigation had already begun before Trump had even taken his hand off the Bible. The day before inauguration, the New York Times reported that law enforcement and intelligence sources were already looking at intercepted communications and financial records “as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.” Comey later testified before Congress that the FBI investigation into those links began in July 2016; Manafort was arrested on Monday.

Papadopoulos wasn’t even the first campaign adviser accused of misleading the FBI during the initial week of Trump’s presidency: Three days before Papadopoulos’ interview, Michael Flynn, at the time Trump’s national security advisor, denied to FBI investigators that he had discussed sanctions on Russia with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—even though the Washington Post cited U.S. officials saying Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office.

The same day that Papadopoulos met with the FBI, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with White House Counsel Don McGahn to share her concerns about Flynn’s “underlying conduct” for a second time.

The following Monday, Trump fired Yates.

Under oath before Congress, Yates later asserted that problems with Flynn went much farther than being “compromised by the Russians,” as she said the Justice Department believed under her tenure.

“Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said in May. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security advisor essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”

Mueller’s investigators are looking into Flynn’s failure to disclose contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and transition, as well as his work on a lobbying contract for a Turkish businessman, and whether he played any role in a former GOP operative’s efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Flynn has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

That same Friday Papadopoulos lied and McGahn met Yates, Trump also surprised Comey with a private dinner, just the two men alone.

“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Trump told him, according to Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey interpreted the dinner as “at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” he told the committee.

Trump went on to fire Comey on May 9, giving rise to Mueller’s appointment.

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Paul Manafort financed a lavish lifestyle with money laundered through offshore accounts, with expenditures including more than $1.3 million in purchases at Beverly Hills and New York clothing stores and more than $1 million on antique rugs, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday. Manafort pled not guilty.

The 12-count indictment against Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates charges that more than $75 million “flowed through” those offshore accounts. It alleges Manafort took $18 million through the accounts, while Gates is accused of transferring $3 million from those accounts to ones he controlled.

The bulk of Manafort’s alleged years-long spending spree took the form of $12 million  in untaxed money he spent on luxury items and home improvements. The indictment spells out how Manafort would have one of his 15 offshore accounts—12 in Cyprus, two in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and one in the United Kingdom—wire in cash to each vendor for his purchases.

The list of Manafort’s lavish expenditures from his offshore accounts runs across eight of the indictment’s 31 pages. More than $5.4 million went to a “home improvement company” in the Hamptons from a mix of Cypriot entities, notably LOAV Advisors and Yiakora Ventures (An NBC News story about the Manafort’s debts to Russian oligarch and Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska said Manafort’s other companies were a primary influence over Yiakura’s business dealings).

Manafort’s expenditures at a Northern Virginia rug merchant, including a $100,000 “related” payment

 

Manafort, whose house in Water Mill, New York is among the assets prosecutors have proposed seizing, began spending from offshore accounts at that vendor in 2008 and continued, often several times a month, until August 2014. He also spent quite a bit on lawn care: a Hamptons-based landscaper lists expenditures totaling $164,740.

The indictment charges that he wired money to an Alexandria, Virginia rug merchant nine times, from as little as $7,400 to as much as $250,000.

Talking Points Memo called around Monday afternoon to rug merchants in Alexandria. At J&J Oriental, a salesperson promised a call back; at Domimex Antiques and Rugs, the proprietor said, “If you hear of anybody who has that kind of money to spend, please send them to me!”

TPM was not the first outlet to contact Art Underfoot, where the person who answered the phone said, “So many reporters have called me! I wish [Manafort] did! I am so poor!”

Not everyone was willing to chime in, however. A person who answered the phone at Herat Oriental told TPM “no comment” and hung up after a reporter identified himself.

Accounts associated with Manafort also made 34 transfers to an unnamed New York clothing store totaling nearly $850,000, and nine transfers to a Beverly Hills clothing store totaling $520,440. He patronized a Florida art gallery in 2011 and again in 2013, where his tab ran to $31,900.

A New York housekeeping service also earned $20,000 in three installments from accounts associated with Manafort.

Manafort’s expenditures at a single New York clothier, 1 of 2
Manafort’s expenditures at a single New York clothier, 2 of 2

The satirical commentary on Twitter was swift:

This post has been updated.

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Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates were hit with a 12-count indictment unsealed Monday that alleges a wide-ranging money laundering conspiracy and multiple violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Both will plead not guilty.

The charges focus not on collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government but on Manafort’s own alleged money laundering activities, which the indictment says personally netted him $18 million and Gates $3 million. According to the indictment, the money in question came from under-the-table lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions, the party of former president Victor Yanukovych. The two men held offshore accounts that allegedly handled more than $75 million over the nine years covered by the charges.

Manafort and Gates were each indicted on one count of conspiracy against the U.S., one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, one count of making a false and misleading FARA statement and a separate count of making a false statement. Manafort was also indicted on four counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, while Gates was indicted on three counts of the same.

The indictment charges that Manafort “represented falsely that he did not have authority over any foreign bank accounts,” and, in a complicated tax dodge, Manafort “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts,” depriving the U.S. of tax revenue, according to the indictment.

It also alleges that Manafort, who was not registered as a foreign agent, took steps to “develop a false and misleading cover story” that would conceal his work for the Party of Regions in order to distance himself from the Government of Ukraine.

In the indictment, the government proposes seizing four of Manafort’s real estate properties—three in New York and one in Arlington, Virginia—as well as his life insurance policy.

This post has been updated.

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Wading into the debate over the effect of Russian meddling on the 2016 election, on Thursday Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein played down the impact of Russian-backed ads posted on various online platforms.

“American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for,” he said in a podcast interview on the Target USA network. “I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”

No assessment of Russian interference in the election has attempted to measure whether or not that interference was effective, but all of them concurred that it happened. The extent of the Russia-backed ads, intended to sow division during the election, on major platforms like Facebook and Twitter has only become publicly known in recent weeks.

Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general for the Russia investigation, appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel and is overseeing Mueller’s probe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously recused himself from matters relating to Russian interference.

Rosenstein hedged in his remarks, referring to Russian election tampering as “alleged” and in the hypothetical in the podcast interview published Thursday. Despite affirmative public assessments of Russian meddling by the intelligence community as far back as October, Rosenstein’s strongest assessment was that “if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”

Rosenstein referred the matter to the intelligence agencies when asked what kinds of consequences the Department of Justice could mete out to the Russian government for meddling in the 2016 election.

“Combating cyber-threats is a role the Justice Department has something to do with,” the DOJ’s second-in-command admitted, “but the primary responsibility for dealing with those threats falls on the intelligence community.”

Target USA’s network, PodcastOne, distributed Rosenstein’s full quote playing down Russian attempted election tampering.

“I think, what you need to recognize is that there have been a number of public reports about alleged Russian activities related to the election, including a report of the intelligence community, and what you’ve asked about public information, you have in an unclassified version of a report that reflects the assessments of our intelligence community. There have also been public reports, recently, about allegations of Russian advertisements, for example, that were posted on various networks. And so, there are a lot of public sources of information out there, and I think what people need to keep in mind is that there’s a distinction between people trying to sway American elections, and succeeding in swaying American elections. I think one of our responsibilities is to make sure that people understand, you know, what the risks are, but also that they make their own determinations. You know, American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for. I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments. I think people are more thoughtful about that in the way that they make their decisions. But nonetheless, you know, if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”

On a separate topic, Rosenstein was more certain about his views on the role whistleblowers: Setting aside legal considerations, “any responsible person” has “a moral obligation not to disclose things if it’s going to cause harm,” he said.

People who distribute information to the press, Rosenstein asserted, do not count as whistleblowers. “There are accepted ways in which you can raise concerns if you work for the government and you have access to information that you believe represents a violation of law or policy,” he told Green. “There are lawful ways for you to raise those issues. But leaking it publicly in a way that’s going to harm national security is not one of those authorized ways.”

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Twitter is barring Russian state news services Sputnik and Russia Today from advertising on its platform, the company announced on its blog Thursday. Twitter cited an intelligence community report from January pointing the finger at the two media agencies, as well as its own findings, among them that RT alone had spent $274 million on Twitter advertising in 2016. Twitter has not disclosed Sputnik’s expenditures.

Sputnik and RT can continue to use their accounts on Twitter, the company said in the announcement.

The company will donate the $1.9 million in advertising revenue it estimates it has taken from RT since 2011 to “external research into the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections, including use of malicious automation and misinformation, with an initial focus on elections and automation,” the unattributed announcement said. That cash came almost entirely from Russia today—a source told TPM that Twitter revenue from Sputnik ads was in “the low hundreds” for 2016 and was generally much lower.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 1, less than a week away, on the role played by Twitter, Google and Facebook during Russian election interference in the 2016 election.

Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder and CEO, tweeted the announcement:

RT immediately hit back, saying Twitter had “pushed RT to spend big on the 2016 US election” and criticizing the company for making its investment numbers public.

Sputnik said Twitter had “refused to provide more details on the issue” and cited pressure from Congress as a reason for the move.

Earlier this week Twitter said it would roll out stricter rules for political advertisers and a “transparency center” to show users more details about the way their information is being used to show them advertisements. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who are co-sponsoring a bill to regulate political advertising on the internet, both issued statements calling the new ad rules a good “first step,” in Warner’s words, but said their bill would go forward as written regardless of Twitter’s internal guidelines.

The company announced other changes earlier this week, adding to its list of banned content “non-consensual nudity” and “hateful imagery and hate symbols.”

Twitter held its 3rd-quarter earnings call on Thursday morning. The company is as little as a single quarter away from profitability, according to its internal projections, executives told financial analysts on a conference call. Its earnings per share were impressive enough to send the stock up 14 percent.

This post has been updated.

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Twitter on Tuesday afternoon announced a new set of standards for political ads on its platform as well as a “transparency center” that will allow users a detailed look at the nature of ads being shown to them on the platform.

But there were no new guidelines for so-called “issue ads,” a term that covers the majority of the propaganda Russian government operatives deployed on Twitter to influence the 2016 election.

“Today, we’re announcing steps to dramatically increase transparency for all ads on Twitter, including political ads and issue-based ads,” wrote Twitter exec Bruce Falck on the company blog. “We will also be improving controls for our customers and adopting stricter advertising policies.”

Twitter’s announcement seemed geared at heading off regulators at the pass: Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently proposed the Honest Ads Act, a bill to regulate digital advertising in the wake of accusations that Twitter and Facebook had been exploited by Russian cyberactors trying to sow division in the American electorate.

Warner tweeted that the company’s new rules for political ads are “a good first step,” which is markedly softer than his harsh words for the service after it gave what he described as an “inadequate” presentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee in September.

The most substantive change Twitter is making appears to be the transparency center, which will allow users to see who is advertising what, for how long, and whether those ads have been targeted to their accounts, in addition to the information organizations use to target advertising. Additionally, Twitter will now require political ads to identify their campaigns as such and “include a visual political ad indicator.”

But “issue ads”—which might say, for example, “a wall with Mexico is a great idea” rather than “vote for Donald Trump”—remain unaddressed.

We are committed to stricter policies and transparency around issue-based ads,” Twitter’s announcement reads. “There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads but we will work with our peer companies, other industry leaders, policy makers, and ad partners to clearly define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach mentioned above.”

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