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Adgate: A step-by-step guide to Russian interference

By Published on .

Google has put a team called Jigsaw on the case of election ad meddling.
Google has put a team called Jigsaw on the case of election ad meddling. Credit: illustration by Ad Age

Now, it's Google's turn in the election spotlight: The search giant revealed Monday it uncovered suspicious ad spending on its platform tied to Russia, much like Facebook and Twitter had done before.

Also over the weekend, President Trump's digital director Brad Parscale told "60 Minutes" how the campaign used social media and the internet in completely legitimate ways to win the election, no outside help needed.

Between the various reporting and investigations into different platforms during the 2016 election, it's gotten hard to keep the actual news separate from the fake news. Here's a quick platform-by-platform guide to where things stand now:

Google
Google acknowledged yesterday that it was looking at less than $100,000 spent on web properties like search and its ad network, according to The Washington Post. The ad buys came from Russian billing addresses or were paid in Russian currency, and some may have even been tied directly to the Russian government, according to people familiar with the inquiry. Google is still sorting out whether any of the activity broke its policies or even campaign laws.

Google did not release the ads, but The New York Times said many of them straddled the political spectrum, some carried an anti-Obama message and some were against Trump. Google is set to speak to Congress on November 1.

Google has put one of its most elite groups, a think tank called Jigsaw, on its internal election review. Jigsaw has been involved in sophisticated ad technology and message-targeting projects, such as one that identifies Google users susceptible to extremism. On Monday, it was also revealed by a person familiar with the tactic that the 2016 election was the first time that Google offered political ad targeting criteria, letting advertisers go after right- and left-leaning audiences.

An example of one of the Facebook posts suspected of coming from Russia.
An example of one of the Facebook posts suspected of coming from Russia. Credit: Facebook, via Internet Archive

Facebook
The social network has faced the sharpest criticism around the election, especially since CEO Mark Zuckerberg had initially said the idea was "crazy" that his company could have played a significant role influencing the outcome. Now, that role has become more clear, if still not fully defined.

Facebook was used by foreign saboteurs and Russian trolls during the election, according to numerous reports. Exactly how this happened has been an unfolding story. As far back as April, the social network released a report on how it was used to spread misinformation from distorted hacked emails, but that initial report did not mention Russia or any paid ad campaigns.

Last month, Facebook said it found paid ads bought by fake accounts that were run by groups in Russia. It revealed that 470 accounts paid to boost 3,000 posts, spending more than $100,000. The ads have been turned over to Congress but not made public, though leaked versions have emerged. They appear to be from foreign agents looking to sow political division by promoting hot-button political messages around LGBT issues, race relations, guns and other topics.

On Sunday, Trump's digital strategist put the $100,000 known foreign money into perspective. Parscale told "60 Minutes" the Trump camps spent tens of millions of dollars on tens of thousands of ads using sophisticated targeting. The point he was attempting to make was that the campaign hardly needed outside assistance to sway the narrative online. Parscale's own slogan is, "I influence people to act."

Twitter
It is suspected that Twitter was even more susceptible to manipulation than Facebook or Google properties. Twitter reported to Congress that it found accounts tied to corollaries on Facebook. In all, Twitter found about $270,000 worth of spending from Russia-linked accounts during the elections.

Twitter also called out RT, formerly Russia Today, for promoting 1,800 tweets, targeting the U.S. with anti-Clinton stories.

Snapchat
Snap is taking a victory lap around the election, because its messaging and media service was less vulnerable to fake news and the misinformation campaigns that spread on the other web platforms, with foreign help or not. It also does not offer ad products like those from Twitter, Facebook or Google that might be useful to foreign meddlers.

Snapchat did have a role to play in the election, though, which was the first presidential race since it started selling ads: The race was the first in which candidates could purchase featured Snapchat filters.

Parscale said that Snapchat had less targeting and ad services to offer, and only made one sales rep available to the Trump team. Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and Google had whole teams devoted to the campaign. The Clinton camp was offered the same digital ad courtesies but declined.

Reddit
There are still questions about Reddit and the election. The company has said very little, but Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has raised concerns that trolls or some other illicit activity could have manipulated news coverage there -- he mentioned Reddit to The Hill as being of interest in the investigation.

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