A social media campaign run by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) has been accused of manipulating opinion in the run up to the 2016 election.
As a result, companies like Facebook have opened investigations into ads run by the IRA on their platform to eliminate "inauthentic accounts" from influencing users. An announcement in April of 2018 by Facebook indicated the site removed a few hundred accounts and user pages, most of which were in Russian and targeted at Russians and other Eastern Europeans in those countries.
Reports released in December by cybersecurity groups on the IRA's targeting of American users highlighted how ads were meant to "[sow] societal and political divisions in the United States."
While foreign influence on U.S. elections could potentially run afoul of various election laws, the scale and details of the campaign doesn't comport with manipulation as much as it does a campaign of social media research.
The IRA only spent about $100,000 on online political ads with Facebook: a paltry sum considering that Trump and Clinton spent a combined $81 million in Facebook ads for the 2016 election.
Rather than sowing division, the use of ads that try unique strategies, like mixing messages from throwaway accounts, in a limited run is a common social media strategy to test a campaign's message before running a larger, heavily funded campaign.
While the analysis of the IRA's campaigns focused on how prolific the posts were and potential for political influence, there is little evidence that the IRA's posts were actually influential on others.
Certain ads and campaigns highlighted in the SSCI report on the IRA's activities noted the large number of Facebook and Instagram likes, but the images created rarely made it outside of those posts.
Reverse image searches for the memes propagated by the IRA show little evidence they made it outside of the network of bots controlled by the IRA.
Besides the limited spending on the IRA campaigns, each ad often used unique messaging not found in other major advertising campaigns. Tactics like this are often used by marketing companies to test out messages and gauge their influence before running a large-scale campaign.
Marketing companies often test out their strategies, sometimes with so-called A/B testing—where two or more slightly different versions of an ad are distributed to measure their response relative to each other.
The CIA's 2017 National Intelligence Assessment accused the IRA as part of Russia's influence campaign because a large funder of the group has links to the Kremlin. One of IRA's main funders is Yevgeny Prigozhin, informally known as 'Putin's chef' and the owner of a large catering company. But it's unknown if Prigozhin was involved or if a separate client paid for the campaigns.