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Last week’s hearings before US lawmakers has provided us with new insights into the workings of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, and how they have been subverted by Russia to further its political aims. In his opening remarks, the Vice Chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner, said that 120 Russian-backed pages on Facebook had built up a network of over 3.3 million people. From those pages, some 80,000 unpaid posts had reached an estimated 126 million people. He noted that researchers estimate that up to 15% of Twitter accounts – potentially 48 million of them – are fake or automated, and mentioned related problems with Google Search and YouTube.
However, the main focus was on Facebook, not least because the intelligence committee released a small sample of the ads that had been run on the social network, paid for by Russian accounts. The sophistication and targeting precision they demonstrate is remarkable. As the Wall Street Journal reported:
“Russian operatives targeted users on Facebook Inc. by race, religion and interests such as gun ownership, the Confederate flag and Ivanka Trump’s jewelry line, according to advertising data released by lawmakers Wednesday as part of congressional investigations into Russian manipulation on social media around the U.S. election.
The ads targeted groups on opposite sides of an issue, a move that lawmakers said was designed to amplify social divisions. One of the Russia-backed pages, “Back the Badge,” for example, ran an ad in October 2016 meant to reach the wives of police officers, sheriffs and pages memorializing killed officers that was seen more than 1.3 million times. “Woke Blacks,” on the other hand, promoted its page among people who are