Future Tense

How the Internet Companies That Sold Ads to Russian Trolls Can Fix the Problem

General counsel for Twitter Sean Edgett, Vice President and general counsel for Facebook Colin Stretch, and Senior Vice President and general counsel for Google Kent Walker testify during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee.
General counsel for Twitter Sean Edgett, Vice President and general counsel for Facebook Colin Stretch, and Senior Vice President and general counsel for Google Kent Walker testify during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Aug. 20, 2016, supporters of the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign attended “Florida Goes Trump” rallies that were held simultaneously in 17 cities across the Sunshine State.
Many, if not most, of them first learned about the events when they saw a paid ad on Facebook or Instagram.

More than 59,000 Floridians saw the rally organizers’ ads, and 8,300 users clicked. The social media campaign publicizing the rallies attracted enough attention that a local Trump supporter contacted the organizers to suggest additional cities be added to their original list. Eventually the organizers got in touch with officials from the Trump campaign to request assistance with the rallies.

A year after the rallies were held, though, one of the organizers would be emailing her family about getting “busted” by the FBI and “covering tracks,” explaining, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

That’s because the rally organizers weren’t really Floridians—or even Americans. They worked in a Russian “troll factory” called the Internet Research Agency. On Friday, a grand jury indicted the agency, two other Russian entities, and 13 Russian nationals for interfering with the 2016 election.

The indictments, announced by special counsel Robert Mueller, describe a sprawling scheme in which the Russians posted on social media, stole Americans’ identities, fraudulently created bank accounts, and traveled to several U.S. cities for research. They had no shortage of resources, with a budget of $1.25 million a month. Their goal, according to Mueller, was to “sow discord” and interfere with the 2016 elections.

Paid ads on websites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were a lynchpin for the entire effort. The Russians used ads to spread propaganda directly to American audiences, and also to drive users to view and follow their fake social media accounts, where they would be exposed to much more content. An estimated 126 million users saw posts from Russian trolls on Facebook alone.

Although the indictment depicts a sophisticated scheme, the campaign was easier than it should have been. That’s because campaign finance laws and regulation have not been updated to adequately cover the internet, with far less transparency for political ads online than there is for ads on broadcast TV.  That made it much easier for the scheme to go undetected.

Although Congress can fix this, it has done little since the Russia-linked ads were revealed last summer. Yet the midterm elections are fast approaching, and the nation’s intelligence chiefs warned this month that Moscow will continue its election meddling through social media.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on Washington. The internet companies that sold ads to the Russian trolls can enact their own reforms. Here’s what they should do.

First, block foreign buyers from purchasing ads that mention candidates before elections, even if they don’t tell people how to vote. Foreign nationals (foreign citizens who are not permanent residents of the United States) are not allowed to buy such ads on TV. The same rules should apply to the internet.

To make this work, companies will have to beef up procedures to verify that political ad buyers are American and catch identity thieves. Ad sellers can use the credit card industry’s address verification system to block some foreign purchases. They could verify buyers’ addresses by requesting documents or using an information-reporting agency.

Internet companies should also make sure that all political ads, including any message that mentions a candidate, have a “paid for by” disclaimer on the face of the ad, and the disclaimer stays on the ad even if it’s shared or retweeted by another user.

Most importantly, online ad sellers should create a public database of political ads that reveals the content of the ads, who paid for them, their cost, how the audience was targeted, and when they ran. The database should cover any ad that discusses the election, candidates, or national political or legislative issues. This last piece is important because the Russian trolls used divisive political issues like gun control, immigration, and LGBTQ rights to try to manipulate the electorate.

Even more helpful would be a global database of political ad purchases. If online ad sellers work together to build a single, international database of political ad sales, the public—and law enforcement—may have a chance see if certain actors are spending in multiple countries’ elections.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have announced reforms that would go part of the way. For instance, they have all pledged to ensure that ads mentioning candidates have disclaimers, and they each plan to create a webpage where all political ads on the platform can be found. But they haven’t said they’ll include ads touching on political issues without mentioning candidates in these efforts. Nor have they said they’ll block foreign nationals from buying ads that mention candidates, or that disclaimers will follow shares.

Instituting these changes will no doubt present challenges, particularly since so much of the companies’ ad-selling process is automated. If any of these processes require human intervention, it could be expensive. But “hard” is not a good reason to stick with the status quo or institute partial reforms when the issue is protecting the sovereignty of American elections. These giant companies were founded in the United States. They have benefited enormously from being based here and have tremendous resources and technical expertise, in good measure because of this fact.  For that reason alone, they  have a duty to protect the integrity of American democracy.

In any event, these three companies are not the entire internet. The whole industry needs to be on board with all the changes—companies should collaborate on industry-wide standards by which all players abide.

To be sure, trolls engaged in a government-supported conspiracy that includes creating false names and stealing identities are likely to lie to the platforms when they buy ads. But even fictitious disclosures can aid investigators, as Friday’s indictment shows. The Russians used the same fake names and email addresses frequently, and Mueller’s team used the trolls’ online accounts to help track their various activities.

These sophisticated Russian trolls tricked a lot of people into thinking they were Americans, from the person they hired to dress up like Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform at a rally to officials at the banks where they opened accounts. Their most important marks were the online platforms that sold them the ads that fueled the entire scheme. Those platforms now have a responsibility to take the initiative to enact meaningful reforms to protect their users as well as our elections.