How Russia-linked propagandists tried to stoke racial and political division in Florida

Russia-linked Facebook ads in Florida show an effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election -- and beyond.
Credit: Facebook
Credit: Facebook
Published May 10, 2018|Updated May 10, 2018

WASHINGTON – "That's right. White Jesus is a Bible fan-fiction."

That provocation was carried on a June 2016 Facebook ad that depicted a dark-skinned Jesus, head wrapped in a scarf, next to a traditional image of Christ.

Aimed at Facebook users in Florida and other states, it's just one example of thousands of ads linked to Russia that sought to stoke racial and political animosity in the U.S. ahead of the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

House Democrats on Thursday released more than 3,500 Facebook ads that reveal the depth of the propaganda effort. Many sought to stir up both sides on issues ranging from guns and immigration to the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality.

Ads mentioned Trayvon Martin, the Florida black youth who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, and sought to emphasize the sexual orientation of Orlando Pulse nightclub victims.

A Russia-linked Facebook ad that targeted people in Florida and other states in June 2016 (House Intelligence Committee)
A Russia-linked Facebook ad that targeted people in Florida and other states in June 2016 (House Intelligence Committee)

Many of them didn't get much attention. The Jesus ad had only 2,392 impressions and received 269 clicks. But others gained widespread attention, the collective effort at once simple and sophisticated.

While the effort has been known and some ads published before, the cache released Thursday provides new understanding and shows how far it went.

Nationally, more than 11.4 million Americans were exposed to the ads. Many more millions saw content created on Facebook pages set up by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, and its operatives, according to House Democrats.

"There's no question that Russia sought to weaponize social media platforms to drive a wedge between Americans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 election," said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

"They did this by creating  fake accounts, pages and communities to push divisive online content and videos, and to mobilize real Americans, unwittingly, to sign online petitions and join rallies and protests. Russia sought to divide us by our race, by our country of origin, by our religion, and by our political party."

In February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, charging several people associated with the Internet Research Agency with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Trump defeat Clinton.

Read moreIndictment: Russians tried to 'denigrate' Rubio, Cruz and Clinton while boosting Sanders and Trump

The indictment was part of Mueller's larger investigation into Russian intervention in the election and whether Trump's campaign was involved. There has been no evidence that Trump's campaign was in any way associated with the social media effort.

The trove of ads released Thursday appears to back the assertion that the Russians wanted to hurt Clinton. Some spread rumors about her husband, former president Bill Clinton, or promote lies about her. Several depict Clinton behind bars.

The February indictment linked the Russian outfit to efforts to set up pro-Trump rallies across the country. "Florida Goes Trump!" read a banner promoting an Aug. 20, 2016, "flash mob." The operatives allegedly used a false Twitter account to recruit a real person to dress up as Clinton in prison garb at  rally in West Palm Beach.

The propaganda continued after the election, according to the documents released Thursday.

An April 2017 Facebook ad promoting free self-defense classes in Tampa carried a tinge of racial tension: the words "BLACK FIST" layered over a clenched fist.

“Join the event, bring your friends feel safe with us!” read the ad, which targeted people living within 25 miles of Tampa. blackfist

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.