How Russian trolls can slip ads past Facebook

To Facebook’s dismay, Russia is trending. On the heels of a report that revealed Facebook overestimated its reach, the company admitted on Wednesday that a Russian “troll farm” spent $100,000 on ads on its platform between June 2015 and May 2017 to influence U.S. politics.

Both of these blunders are minor given the scope of Facebook’s ad business, but the Russian operation in particular is noteworthy as it illustrates the perils ad platforms face when they are engineered to have as many advertisers as possible.

The Russian operatives probably didn’t need to go through an ad agency and instead just used Facebook’s self-service ad buying tool, an ad buyer said, speaking anonymously. To purchase ads on Facebook, a prospective buyer with a small budget only needs a credit card. Since the campaigns were so small, instead of getting a Facebook rep assigned to them, the Russian operatives probably only had access to a general Facebook email address, the buyer said. Facebook declined to comment for this story.

Most ads submitted to the platform get approved within a few hours. The ease of setting up an account allows Facebook to attract ad dollars from not just big brands but also mom-and-pop shops, and the low barrier to entry in setting up campaigns is one of the reasons Facebook has been able to keep growing its ad business.

With Facebook’s self-service tools, a troll farm could quickly submit hundreds of different ad creatives that vary slightly from each other, said Brendan Gahan, founder of ad agency Epic Signal. By submitting a lot of similar ads, the trolls could A/B test which messages slip through Facebook’s detectors.

For example, Facebook’s advertising policy bars shocking imagery as well as discrimination against personal attributes such as race and sexual orientation. Pushing many different ads through the platform could help the trolls find the sweet spot where their ads are borderline sensational but not enough to get banned. Sending various ads through Facebook also increases the probability that a single piece of propaganda slips through the cracks.

To avoid detection, political operatives could also hide their identities by masking their IP addresses with virtual private networks, said independent marketing tech adviser Nate Elliott. Using VPNs could make it appear like the computers purchasing inventory to display divisive ads are scattered throughout various locations and not working together, when in reality, they could operate from the same building.

The $100,000 in question was spent by 470 accounts over a two-year period, according to Facebook. In other words, the amount of money each account spent was negligible for a company that made nearly $10 billion last quarter.

Facebook isn’t the only platform under heat for spreading misinformation. Twitter is slated to provide Congress an analysis of Russian activity on its platform.

“Under normal circumstances, Facebook’s ad quality team would never even know these ads existed,” Elliott said.

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