Exclusive: Russia used Google and its advertisers to fund propaganda efforts in the 2016 election.
You’ve likely never heard of Veles. The tiny town of 55,000 people lies deep in Macedonia, a landlocked country nestled between Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. Macedonia has struggled to kickstart its economy since independence in 1991. The resulting high unemployment and a teenage population with a fair command of English, made Veles an unlikely centre of production for fake news during the 2016 election.
Two years ago, a cadre of Macedonian teenage web entrepreneurs began creating and publishing pro-Trump fake news content directed at a U.S. audience. Some of the teens were recruited via gaming forums or micro-work sites but they don’t seem to have had a direct connection to the Trump campaign or Russian intelligence, except for the curious feature that only their pro-Trump fake news found an audience.
Some of the fake news websites looked very similar to the sites of the New York Times and Huffington Post and contained fake news stories with headlines like:
“JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money To Clinton Campaign!” and “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal To Leave White House, He Will Stay In Power!”
Google approved and provided advertising codes to these websites so commercials from the world’s largest advertiser network appeared alongside this fake content.
The internet giant paid out thousands of dollars to the fake news creators, essentially funding a propaganda effort. One of the fake news purveyors named Boris was profiled by Wired Magazine, which claimed: “Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites.” The magazine noted the average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.
Fake news spreads in other ways on YouTube, funded by the tech giant’s advertisers.
Williams and Kalvin Johnson filled their YouTube channel with drummed up anti-Hillary Clinton videos. The two aspirant YouTubers, who hail from either Atlanta or Nigeria, routinely warned viewers Clinton, “is going to stand for the Muslim.” The channel was actually part of a Kremlin propaganda effort to infiltrate the U.S., according to the Daily Beast.
Williams and Kalvin’s content has been pulled by YouTube, Facebook and Twitter but none of these platforms revealed if the creators generated revenue from advertisers on their channel. YouTube sells ads across its network, placing them before user-generated content and splitting revenue with creators. In many cases, advertisers may not even be aware they are unwittingly funding propaganda efforts because advertising is bought based on a users’ browsing history, not the content.
Over on Russia Today’s channel on YouTube, this practice continues until now. The DOJ is forcing RT to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act but somehow Google still serves up advertising from pro-American companies to their YouTube page – money which flows directly to the Russian propaganda operation. Google included RT as part their preferred channels network which gave the Kremlin mouthpiece access to blue-chip advertisers in the U.S., until two weeks ago.
Russia also manipulated Google news algorithms so RT’s news stories would appear with higher frequency than U.S. news sites in the run up to the election. “We saw manipulation of certain algorithms, so that if you Googled certain items, you got Russia news, R.T. News, other false news,” according to Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence committee.
Russian agents also bought tens of thousands of dollars of ads promoting pro-Trump policies on all of Google’s products include YouTube, Google search and Gmail. If you sent an election e-mail to a friend on Gmail, Russia targeted you with specific propaganda based on your private correspondence.
“We have a set of strict ads policies including limits on political ad targeting and prohibitions on targeting based on race and religion. We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries,” Google said in a statement, without actually admitting anything.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are slow in acknowledging their involvement in Trump-Russia.
Google has followed the same path as Facebook and Twitter in denying, obfuscating and finally confessing to some of their involvement in Trump-Russia. The Washington Post discovered Russia’s ad-buying on Google on their own. “They haven’t admitted it,” said Post reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin. “We had to find it out from our own sources…we’ve only started to chip away at the tip of the iceberg of what we’re seeing,” said Dwoskin.
One open question is what was driving up the traffic to these YouTube sites? We’ve written about a Russian propaganda machine and bot farm in St. Petersburg which operated hundreds of fake Facebook groups, ran divisive ads and incited anger. They also retweeted, liked and shared content created by the fake news factories in Macedonia, Russia Today, Infowars and Sputnik. As the Russian bot farms and Facebook groups spread the word, traffic to the fake news sites and YouTube grew, giving the content higher rankings and generating revenue from U.S. brands via Google Adsense.
The Kremlin deployed a stealth data operation on Facebook, Twitter and Google, supported by an unprecedented invasion of privacy. Russian hackers breached DNC and state voters rolls to harvest data which was used to target fake and divisive content on the internet platforms. It’s unclear if this infringed on Americans’ right to exercise their vote.
Google, Facebook and Twitter are now the targets of an investigation by congressional committees who want to know what the companies knew and when.
Investigations aside, the tech giants owe their users a better understanding of whether they were targeted and by what content. They should also come clean on how much they profited from the influence campaign and whether they (knowingly or otherwise) funded the fake news and propaganda operation launched by the Kremlin and, they should reveal which advertisers were involved.