Russians meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race used a Facebook advertising tool to send targeted messages to social media users based off their browsing histories, according to a new report.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Russian operatives exploited Facebook's "Custom Audiences" feature in order to specifically target account holders assumed to be susceptible to propaganda, citing multiple sources familiar with the U.S. government's investigation into Russia's alleged election meddling.
Used in tandem with "fake news" websites created by Russians, the Custom Audiences feature allowed foreign operatives to feed deliberately false and misleading articles to specific Facebook users in the run-up to President Trump's election last November, according to the article.
Russian actors first created English-language sites and Facebook pages boasting content involving hot-button topics such as illegal immigration, African-American activism and Islam, then used the Custom Audiences feature to display targeted ads to social media users who visited those sites, the report said.
Internet users who browsed the misleading news sites were tracked with "cookies" that were then fed into the Facebook tool and used to connect visitors to their respective Facebook accounts, according to the report.
"The Facebook users were then shown ads featuring divisive topics that the Russians wanted to promote in their Facebook news feeds, which displayed the ads alongside messages from friends and family members," the report said.
Russians used separate Facebook tools to target users by demographics, geography, gender and interests, the report said, but the Custom Audiences feature differed in that it allowed the operatives to single-out specific users, The Post reported.
"About 1 percent of the ads used a specific type of Custom Audiences targeting to reach people on Facebook who had visited that advertiser's website or liked the advertiser's Page -- as well as to reach people who are similar to those audiences," Facebook said Tuesday. "None of the ads used another type of Custom Audiences targeting based on personal information such as email addresses."
Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized state-sponsored operatives to interfere in last year's White House race in hopes of electing Mr. Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
While initial reports about the operation focused heavily on Russia's alleged use of government hackers and propagandists to influence the race in Mr. Trump's favor, information regarding Moscow's supposed weaponization of social media has recently come to light suggesting the Kremlin campaign exploited services offered by Facebook, Google and Twitter.
Representatives from each of the three tech titans have since been invited to testify before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees investigating last year's election.
Facebook announced earlier this week that it's given congressional investigators more than 3,000 ads allegedly purchased by Russian operatives during last year's race. Those ads were viewed by about 10 million users before and after Mr. Trump's election, Facebook said.
Russia has denied interfering in last year's presidential race.
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