This Group Posed As Russian Trolls And Bought Political Ads On Google. It Was Easy.
In the summer of 2018, after months of public and legislator outcry over election interference, you might think it would be difficult for a Russian troll farm to purchase — with Russian currency, from a Russian zip code — racially and politically divisive ads through Google. And you might reasonably assume that if such a troll farm were able to do this, Google — which has said “no amount of interference that is acceptable” — would prevent it from successfully targeting those ads at thousands of Americans on major news sites and YouTube channels.
But you’d be wrong.
Researchers from the advocacy group the Campaign for Accountability — which has frequently targeted Google with its “transparency project” investigations… posed as Kremlin-linked trolls and successfully purchased divisive online ads using Google’s ad platform and targeted them toward Americans. In an attempt to trigger Google’s safeguards against such efforts, the researchers purchased the advertisements using the name and identifying details of the Internet Research agency — a Kremlin-linked troll farm that’s been the subject of numerous congressional hearings. The advertisements appeared on the YouTube channels and websites of media brands like CNN, ‘CBS This Morning,’ The Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast.
Despite assurances from Google last month that it has installed “robust systems” to “identify influence operations launched by foreign governments,” the company approved the CFA ads in less than 48 hours. The ads used language and images identical to that of Russia’s Internet Research Agency troll farm. The images had previously been identified by congressional investigators and major media outlets as part of the glut of Russian content used to sow political and racial discord during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. The organization also ran ads designed to direct users to sites identified by congress as being run by Russian trolls.
All told, Campaign for Accountability spent just $35 on its test ads, which generated more than 20,000 impressions and some 200 clickthroughs. Google never flagged them.
“I’m a little astounded something so flagrantly obvious could get through Google’s platform,” Daniel Stevens, the executive director for the Campaign for Accountability told BuzzFeed News. “This should’ve been caught and it wasn’t and that’s a problem.”
But the Campaign for Accountability’s latest experiment appears to illustrate that, when it comes to less overly political ads — the kind historically used by outside influence campaigns to sow political discord and racial and cultural tension — Google and its algorithms fall short. As the campaigns demonstrate, Adwords was unable to recognize previously reported state-sponsored content and websites. And, in some instances, even assisted researchers in creating more effective ads to direct users to troll content.
“Google has admitted it’s trying to stop this activity when it comes to issue ads but its clear there’s a huge gap in their policing of this content,” Stevens told BuzzFeed News. “It feels like a flagrant abdication of responsibility and it’s in-line with the trend we see from Google — they’re very hesitant to crack down on things that are a threat to their business model.”