A very detailed report on how Russian trolls put political ads into Google Ads. The bigger story is how Google is not protecting us from Russian interference and information warfare.
The bottom line, Russia is a rogue state that uses hybrid warfare, including information warfare, as a means to tear down the US and other countries in the West. Despite all the bluster, all the posturing, and all the speeches, we do not hold Russia accountable, so they continue.
An excellent piece by the Google Transparency Project.
The Google AdWords account used the St. Petersburg address and tax ID of the Kremlin-linked troll farm indicted by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election. Photo: Google Street View
New tests show Google has done little to stop foreign actors from improperly influencing US elections
- Campaign for Accountability was able to run ads created by Russian trolls on Google’s platforms, targeting U.S. audiences
- The Russian AdWords account was set up using the name and identifying details of the Kremlin-linked troll farm
- The ads were paid for in Russian rubles and ran on major U.S. media properties
For months, Google has trumpeted a set of strict new rules put in place to stop rogue foreign actors from abusing its platform to influence U.S. elections. No longer, it said, would foreign adversaries be able to buy political ads or spread divisive propaganda, as Russian operatives did freely during the 2016 campaign.
But a series of tests shows Google has done little to strengthen its defenses. Just five months before the 2018 midterm elections, CfA was able to buy ads on Google’s Russian ad platform targeting U.S. internet users. It used the name and identifying details of the Kremlin-linked troll farm that led Russia’s campaign to influence the last presidential election. It even paid for the ads in Russian rubles.
Google then ran the ads on a wide range of web sites and YouTube channels, including CNN, CBS This Morning, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, AnnCoulter.com and Britain’s Daily Mail.
The troll farm, formally known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), has been the subject of innumerable articles since the 2016 election and was indicted by the special counsel investigating U.S. election interference. Notwithstanding its notoriety, CfA was able to easily set up a Russian AdWords account, using the name, street address and tax identification number of the St. Petersburg-based troll farm. Google even helpfully prepopulated the troll farm’s contact details.
Google quickly approved the ads, which used similar language and many of the same images that were created by the troll farm in 2016. Many of the images approved by Google had already been identified by U.S. congressional investigators or widely revealed in the U.S. media to be Russian propaganda efforts.
Google also approved display ads directing U.S. internet users to sites identified by congressional investigators and the media as having been created and run by the Russian trolls.
The ease with which CfA was able to replicate the Russian campaign of 2016 undermines Google’s claims to have fortified its platform against outside manipulation. Amid revelations that Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars buying Google ads to influence the 2016 U.S. election, Google said in October 2017 that it employed “a set of strict ad policies including limits on political ad targeting.”
Ten months later, in August 2018, Google touted its investment in “robust systems” to “identify influence operations launched by foreign governments” on its platforms.
None of these steps deterred CfA’s testers. CfA was able to replicate a small-scale influence campaign with less than $100, using only a burner phone to register the Google account and a Yandex account to transfer funds to Google AdWords.
In an effort to trigger Google’s safeguards, the test waved obvious red flags throughout. CfA posed as Russians while buying political ads targeted at U.S. users. We used a Russian IP address, accessed Google’s Russian AdWords platform and supplied the details of the indicted Russian troll farm. CfA submitted ad copy and promoted websites created by the troll farm. And CfA paid for them in Russian currency using Yandex, Russia’s largest online payment service.
Google’s failure to block our test ads also stands in contrast to Facebook’s announcement in July 2018 that it had detected and removed 32 pages and fake accounts after identifying a possible campaign to disrupt the U.S. midterm elections. In August 2018, Facebook announced it had uncovered another set of Russian and Iranian account networks aimed at influencing Americans and citizens of other nations.
The ads associated with those Facebook accounts appear to have been considerably more difficult to detect than those that plagued the 2016 election. The accounts used virtual private networks to mask their true location, they relied on third parties to buy the ads, and the ads were paid for with U.S. and Canadian dollars. Facebook does not allow payment using prepaid credit cards or Yandex and requires a valid bank, PayPal or credit card account to purchase ads, making a similar experiment more difficult.
By contrast, CfA made no attempt to give our ads even the appearance of legitimacy when submitting them to Google. CfA created phony ads and then directed them at known Russian troll websites including BlackMattersUS.com and USAReally.com.
The former site was used by the IRA during the 2016 election to stoke racial tensions and stir political unrest by co-opting American civil rights activists. USAReally.com entered the scene more recently. In June 2018, internet researchers identified the site as the latest in Russia’s attempt to undermine U.S. democracy by publishing wild conspiracy theories as news and attempting to organize political rallies to support President Donald Trump.
Google made no attempts to verify the identity of the Russian account and approved the ads in as little as 24 hours. In one case, Google even recommended images directly from one of the Russian troll sites as we were preparing our AdWords campaign.
The campaigns were surprisingly cheap. Our ads received over 20,000 views and more than 200 clicks, all for a total advertising cost of around $35.
Google’s far-reaching platforms were central to Russia’s effort to disrupt the election, giving its operatives far greater contact with American voters than they could obtain through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter alone. Through its search and email ads, and ads on millions of third-party websites run through Google AdSense and DoubleClick, Google operates the world’s biggest online advertising business.
The company also owns YouTube, the world’s largest online video site, which hosted propaganda videos and adsbought by Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Posing as Trolls: Here’s how CfA Bought IRA Ads
Step One: Purchase Burner Phone and Prepaid Mobile Phone Chips
The email and AdWords providers we used to register our accounts required a cell phone number. To make it hard to trace and see if we activated any safeguards, we asked a travelling friend to purchase a cheap Nokia burner phone for $15.99 from a small market in Panama and $5 mobile chips from three different Panama mobile providers. We then activated each phone chip with a $5 scratch-off phone card.