Posing as Russian Troll Farm, Watchdog Buys Politically Divisive Ads on Google

CfA Successfully Bought Google Ads Using Rubles and a Russian IP Address

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 4, 2018

Contact: Daniel Stevens, dstevens@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (“CfA”), a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group focused on public accountability, released a report documenting how CfA bought politically divisive ads on Google using Russian rubles and a Russian IP address.  CfA posed as the infamous Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), and bought ads using similar language and the same images that the IRA deployed during its 2016 influence campaign.  The ads ran on major U.S. media websites and their YouTube channels.

Read the report here.

CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said, “The ease with which CfA was able to replicate the 2016 Russian ad campaign shows Google has failed to keep its promise to prevent foreign actors from interfering in our elections.  Google is more interested in pocketing rubles than protecting American Democracy.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars buying Google ads to influence the election. In response to those revelations, Google said that it had addressed the problem by employing “a set of strict ad policies including limits on political ad targeting.”  Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Google recently touted its investment in “robust systems” to “identify influence operations launched by foreign governments” and specifically cited the IRA as an example.

Nothing Google did, however, stopped CfA from replicating the IRA’s campaign. CfA was able to set up a Russian Google AdWords account using a burner phone from Panama and the contact information of the IRA.  CfA used a Russian name and email address to set up the account, paid for the ads through the Russian payment service Yandex, and employed a virtual private network to ensure any IP address logged by Google would appear to be from St. Petersburg. The Kremlin-linked IRA, which has been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 election, is based in St. Petersburg.

CfA then designed – and Google approved – ads very similar to those created by the IRA in 2016.  The ads used images and language specifically created by Russian trolls. Google also approved display ads, which CfA purchased with Russian rubles, directing U.S. Internet users to websites such as BlackMattersUS.com and USAReally.com, which were created and run by the Russian trolls. CfA’s ads ran on wide range of web sites and YouTube channels, including those of CNN, CBS This Morning, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, AnnCoulter.com and Britain’s Daily Mail.

In contrast, Facebook’s efforts to rein in fake ads and accounts appear to have been more effective. In July 2018, Facebook announced it had detected and removed 32 pages and fake accounts after identifying a possible campaign to disrupt U.S. midterm elections. Last month, Facebook announced it had uncovered another set of Russian and Iranian account networks aimed at influencing the voting decisions of Americans and citizens of other nations. Notably,unlike Google, Facebook does not allow ads to be purchased through Yandex.

Stevens continued, “With the 2018 campaign underway, Google clearly isn’t doing enough to protect our public discourse from malicious advertising campaigns.  Congress needs to investigate Google’s conduct to ensure Google is taking this threat seriously.”

Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.