Instead, the paid ads most often functioned to raise the profile of phony astroturf communities that formed the heart of the Russian disinformation campaign. IRA employees posing as Americans posted “organic” content to ersatz groups, which were then shared voluntarily by unwitting Facebook users. “The nearly 3,400 Facebook and Instagram advertisements the IRA purchased,” according to the SSCI report, “are comparably minor in relation to the over 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets that were the original creations of IRA influence operatives, disseminated under the guise of authentic user activity.”
In addition to affirming much of what had been reported about Russian online interference over the past three years, the report—a second volume from the Senate committee—offers new insights into the extent of past foreign influence operations and recommendations on how best to prepare for those yet to come.
That dovetails with the conclusion of researchers at Oxford University who found that organic sharing of Russian disinformation dwarfed the reach of the campaign’s paid ads, with some 30 million users passing along IRA content on Facebook and Instagram from 2015 to 2017. The role of paid ads was more indirect, laying the groundwork for that sharing. The single most viewed paid ad from Russian trolls, for instance, promoted a bogus group called Back the Badge, which purported to support law enforcement officials in the face of complaints about their use of force and racialized policing practices. Other ads took the opposite approach, and promoted fake groups that mimicked real activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. Indeed, racial minorities appear to have been the groups most heavily targeted by Russia—not with ads promoting a candidate but via rhetoric designed to suppress the largely Democratic African American vote by portraying traditional electoral participation as futile and politicians from both parties as handmaidens of white supremacy.
If you’re worried about foreign governments mounting disinformation campaigns, restricting paid political advertising on social media will do almost nothing to hinder such campaigns. When foreign intelligence services want to misinform American voters, they mostly rely on Americans to do the work of spreading their messages for free.