News Brief

Russian Election Hackers “Weaponized” Facebook’s Micro-targeting

Facebook’s ability to direct advertisements at highly specific groups of people — known as micro-targeting — is coming under increasing scrutiny in the United States amid continuing concerns about Russian hacking ahead of the November mid-terms.

Its algorithm-driven capacity to place ads in front of users according to their interests and preferences has proved highly lucrative. But a new report highlights how operatives working for the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency exploited Facebook micro-targeting to try to discourage non-white Americans from voting during the 2016 election, according to The New York Times.

“Russian groups appeared to identify and target nonwhite voters months before the election with benign messages promoting racial identity,” said the author of the report, Young Mie Kim, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Then, on Election Day, the group sent them an ad encouraging them to boycott the presidential election.

Latino voters were targeted with an image of a barbed-wire border with a “No Trespassing” sign. “We didn’t come to steal your jobs,” the ad said, “we came to make a living.”

The campaign was so successful that it got up 16,000 reactions and 95,000 shares. But it cost the Internet Research Agency just sixteen cents, according to the New York Times.

Microtargeting was also the main tool used by Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that worked for both the Trump and Brexit campaigns, harvesting the data of millions of Facebook users.

Facebook says it has tightened up its procedures in response to the continuing revelations about abuses of its platform. Anyone seeking to run a political campaign or political ad now has to confirm their identity and location as well as disclose who paid for the ad. Though that same rule has created a new problem for media organizations, who have found some of their content being flagged and blocked by Facebook on the grounds that it is political.