WASHINGTON — A Russian-linked Facebook ad that ran in Maryland in the months following the 2015 riots in Baltimore included a photograph of Freddie Gray and the words "never forget,” part of what lawmakers described Wednesday as a campaign to stir tensions in the United States around race, police and politics.
Maryland — a deeply blue state not in play in presidential campaigns — was one of the three states most heavily targeted by the Russian ads, a leading Republican senator said Wednesday. Some 262 ads made their way onto computer screens in the run-up to the 2016 election. New York and Missouri also received a high share of the ads.
New details about the Russian effort as well as a sample of ads came as lawmakers spent a second day asking why social media giants including Facebook and Twitter permitted Russian entities to use their platforms to target Americans. Facebook alone has turned over some 3,000 Russian-linked ads.
“Americans must always be free to pick and choose which stories and ads they seek to read, click or re-tweet,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the committee’s Russia probe. “However, we must not let technology provide foreign enemies with a free pass to spread disinformation with the intent to divide us.”
At a hearing earlier Wednesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr framed the Russian effort as having little to do with last year’s presidential election. In making that argument, Burr said Maryland — a state that was not competitive in the election year — was among the most heavily targeted by the Russian campaign.
Burr was addressing only the ads that were targeted to geography, which Facebook said earlier in the week represents about 25 percent of all the ads. The majority of the ads ran nationally.
“What you haven’t heard is that almost five times more ads were targeted at the State of Maryland than [at] Wisconsin,” Burr said, naming a purple state that switched from supporting Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 to Republican Donald J. Trump in 2016.
"What we cannot do … is calculate the impact that foreign meddling and social media had on this election,” the North Carolina Republican said.
The Maryland advertisement, which was released Wednesday by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, included images of Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in April 2015 after suffering a severe injury in police custody, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was killed by police in Cleveland in 2014. All were African-American.
“Join us because we care,” the ad reads. “Black Matters!”
The ad began appearing on Facebook in July 2015, months after the riots in Baltimore that followed Gray's death.
On its face, the ad betrays little about the motives behind its placement. The ad appeared in Facebook feeds in Maryland, Georgia, Missouri and Virginia, according to the committee, and was loaded on screens more than 200,000 times. It was paid for in rubles, according to data provided by the committee — about $900 worth.
Another ad, distributed nationally, included a graphic of a tactical rifle with the disjointed sentence: “We are not against police, we against police brutality!” Another showed an image of a police funeral and referenced the Black Lives Matter movement: “Another gruesome attack on police by a BLM movement activist.”
Other ads released Wednesday made overt mention of the presidential campaign and both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Russian-linked Twitter accounts promoted stories questioning Clinton’s health, for instance.
“But the social media campaign was also designed to further a broader Kremlin objective: Sowing discord in the U.S. by inflaming passions on a range of divisive issues," the California lawmaker said.
Analysts grappled with the content of some of the ads, and the intention behind them.
“The ad is yet another example of how the online environment is still very much the Wild West, and foreign bad actors were spending large amounts of money — almost undetected — to easily infiltrate the 2016 election, with an intent to cause civil unrest in American society,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush.
“It also demonstrates that we, as Americans, need to be more vigilant about what is being presented to us online,” he said.
Jennifer Golbeck, who directs the Social Intelligence Lab at the University of Maryland, said the ads could have been used to lure people to pages that then tried to shape their views in another direction.
Golbeck warned it is impossible to test the theory without seeing the pages of the groups behind the ads.
Facebook has removed those pages.
“If, for example, they wanted to suppress the Clinton vote among people who support Black Lives Matter, they could include negative posts about Clinton with seemingly negative remarks she has made about African-Americans,” Golbeck said.
“That would be a classic strategy of a voter suppression campaign,” she said, “cleverly executed through a Facebook group that pulls in people likely to be her voters.”