I Spent $2,000 On Facebook Ads And Accidentally Became A Russian Propaganda Machine

I created a platform for sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism — and Facebook helped me do it
Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP Photo/Alexei Druzhinin, Pool)

In light of the ongoing Russia scandal surrounding our President and the debate about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, I was able to prove how effortless it is to take advantage of the growing divisions in American politics on social media. In a matter of days, I created a platform for people to tout hard-lined conspiracy theories and personally attack each other.

A full disclaimer, I don’t have $2000 to throw at my computer for the sake of science, I do in fact have an agenda with the ads I bought on Facebook. I recently launched a Kickstarter focusing on Trump and his ties to Putin through a satirical Russian Matryoshka Doll set.

My original goal was to innocently buy Facebook ads directed at backers who are politically active and would find a Trump/Putin Matryoshka Doll funny. You can find out more about my Trump Russian doll Kickstarter here.

Trump, Pence, Donald Jr., Kushner, and Putin all happy in one set.

Trump, Pence, Donald Jr., Kushner, and Putin all happy in one set.

However, what transpired when I bought the ads can only be described as the toilet wall of a dive bar… if that dive bar had accidentally booked both the DNC and RNC on the same night.

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My Master Plan To Divide America

The targeting I had created for my ads was never meant to create dissidence and conflict. I just wanted to reach people who are going to back my Kickstarter. Initially, I created broad ads about the dolls that encouraged people to like my page. These ads were always targeted at people aged 18–60 years old and who had self-identified as ‘Liberal’ or ‘Very Liberal.’ I then added other levels of interest-targeting on top to ensure I was reaching the right people.

Example: Identified as politically very liberal and is interested in a certain TV show, celebrity or politician

Example: Identified as politically very liberal and is interested in a certain TV show, celebrity or politician

Once I had roughly 1,300 likes from these promotions, I created a few straight forward ads where people were sent directly to my Kickstarter page. These ads were created with a lookalike audience — a fancy term for Facebook finding people who are similar to your current fan base. I thought my current 1,300 people strong fanbase was concentrated and vehemently liberal enough that Facebook would have no problem finding a similar audience on a larger scale.

I was wrong, so very wrong.

I entrusted Facebook to create its own audience that was going to respond to my ad and instead, chaos ensued. I am assuming Facebook’s algorithms had a complete disregard for political preference and decided to send my ads to ultra-conservative Trump supporters because they would naturally want to comment on Trump-related ads…Which in its own special way did indeed create a lot of engagement around my ads, just not the kind I wanted.

It is quite clear to me that creating political division and a politically poisonous conversation is incredibly easy on social media. If I had $100,000 to spend on ads like Russia did, I am quite certain I could do serious damage to people’s moral compasses. With roughly $2,000 I reached 125,000 people in just about every pocket of the country.

Reach is the number of people who saw the ad and impressions is the amount of times it appeared on a screen.

Reach is the number of people who saw the ad and impressions is the amount of times it appeared on a screen.

Reaching 126 million people on Facebook actually wouldn’t have been that complicated for the Russians, and inciting political division is just throwing fuel on the red and blue fire that rages online. More importantly, the argument that the Russian ads had no effect on people, as reported here, I personally cannot believe, it really was that easy to instigate.

On October 2nd, Facebook discussed the Russian Ads purchased and said in a Hard Questions release,

“Most of the ads appear to focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

On a normal day, these issues are already contentious throughout America, and to insight divisions online would have been child’s play. The real challenge is getting people to take actions after you’ve reached them.

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What Transpired and the Evidence

When I created one ad, in particular, it had the single condition for Facebook to target 1% of people who were in my lookalike audience. I essentially handed the reins over to Facebook to work some magic.

The post reached nearly 19,000 people, had over 200 shares and 207 comments. By my count, conservatives made up around 55% of the comments, liberals 40% and no identifiable preference at 5%. Instead of helping me sell my Kickstarter, Facebook gave me a personal tour into the sewers of America where racists, homophobes, and anti-semites work relentlessly to tear each other down.

The conspiracy theories, harsh comments, and ridiculous memes came thick and fast. Each side of the political spectrum dug into conspiracies and personally attacking each other. A favorite used by the conservatives was accusing Hillary Clinton of collusion regarding the sale of uranium to Russia, implicating her as the real traitor.

A reference to the 2010 deal that gave the Russian company Rosatom access to uranium deposits and supplies around the world, whereby American uranium accounted for 1/30th of the deal. Just to note, none of my ads ever mention Hillary, uranium or anything but Trump and Russian matryoshka dolls.

A liberal slander that popped up a few times was the classic “Trump paid hookers to pee on him in Moscow.” Although I didn’t see it as malicious but more a playful suggestion directed at me.

With every meme or political opinion came replies of denial or personal insults. One guy with the last name Ahmed, was targeted by three different individuals with some pretty harsh anti-semitic remarks, although he was quick to fire back.

One woman, after posting a meme, was hit with a racist personal attack due to her last name, she never replied.

If it wasn’t personal attacks, then it was complete denial of any wrongdoing and the belief America is better off now than ever before.

I can’t touch on every comment and meme that was posted but the accusations and slandering always deflected to discussing Hillary or Obama, if not attacking an individual personally.

This seems to align with the general rhetoric that is touted by ultra conservatives on social media and in the news. Not to address the problem being discussed but instead pass the blame to another, like Obama or Hillary, who really have nothing to do with the Russia investigation. The best defense is a good offense, I suppose.

The whole situation had quickly run out of my control, and I was getting a rude glimpse into the lowest denominator of America, and I’d like to note that not a single person actually commented on the doll or the Kickstarter favorably!

Who was commenting?

Now you may think that most of these comments came from teenagers or young adults sitting in bedrooms and dorm rooms across the country. Yet it couldn’t have been more the opposite, a majority of engagement from these ads came from adults aged 45 to 60 years old. The older a person the more likely they were to engage with my ads.

I set the ads at a maximum of 60 years, no one above 60 saw the ads.

I set the ads at a maximum of 60 years, no one above 60 saw the ads.

With both Women and Men responding to the ads roughly at the same rate when taking into account how often the ads were being served to each gender, Women slightly ahead.

I should also note that some posts had more fervent debates than others when I didn’t rely on Facebook to assist me I created customer profiles to target people, which did much better with ad response. For example, a few ads that got a positive response targeted people who were very liberal, watched The Daily Show, and were interested in Elizabeth Warren. Though even in these cases around 5% of comments were still pro-trump and looking to instigate conflict.

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The Problem

I got a glimpse into a war that is raging online entirely by accident when I trusted Facebook to help me promote my Kickstarter. The primary issue with all of this, for me at least, is I don’t want conservatives to generate hundreds of comments on my ads. I want my Kickstarter to raise the funds necessary so I can manufacture a funny collectable. The conversation quickly got out of hand and was impossible to bring back to my Kickstarter, instead of cutting my losses on social media I sunk more money into a poisonous political vacuum.

Russia, on the other hand, wanted people to divide a nation, be it through voting, demonstrating or rioting. How effective they were to create action offline past its usual levels is hard to tell. I don’t think dismissing a $100,000 advertising budget as ineffective is logical given how easy it was for me to instigate.

Literally anyone could begin to create a political firestorm around any topic of their choosing. Regulation like in the Honest Ads Act will be taking the necessary first steps to curb the power of online advertisements have on our political discourse. Who purchased an ad would be displayed at all times, so we the social media users will at least know who is trying to manipulate us, or you know, trying to pitch us a Kickstarter.

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