Google’s investigation into the dissemination of Russian misinformation on its platforms during the 2016 election has thus far yielded little evidence that Russia spent substantial sums of money on its campaign.
The ongoing investigation has found that Russian agents spent “tens of thousands” of dollars on ads targeting various Google platforms, including YouTube, Gmail, the search engine, and the double click ad network, sources familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post.
Google’s internal probe reportedly discovered $4,700 in Russian connected search and display ads and $53,000 in political ads purchased by Russian internet service providers, organizations with Russian building addresses or with Russian currency.
Google reported in September that it had found no evidence of Russian interference on its platforms, which amount to the world’s largest online advertising business. The recently-discovered Russian ad buys are demonstrative of the multi-layered, cross platform approach employed by Russian agents, who purchased ad space and pushed free content on Twitter, Facebook and Google.
Despite the relatively low budget with which Russian agents appear to have been operating, investigators believe their combination of paid and free content could potentially have reached millions of people. It remains unclear to what degree the Russian ad spending and dissemination of free content influenced the election.
“We see the Russia presence on social media metastasizing,” Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told WaPo. “The extent of the Russian presence just continues to grow and grow, and I don’t think we yet have any kind of full understanding of just how expansive this presence may have been.”
Unlike Facebook, which allows for the classification of ads across thousands of categories, Google organizes political ads into simple left-leaning or right-leaning classifications. Sources involved with the internal investigation said they have not yet found any evidence to suggest Russian agents targeted a specific political ideology; rather, it appears they pushed inflammatory content likely to appeal to ideologues on both ends of the spectrum.
Facebook handed over 3,000 Russian-linked ads, which were sold for a total of roughly $100,000. While it appears that Russian agents invested more heavily on Facebook ads, relative to Twitter and Google, more than half of the 10 million users that viewed the ads encountered them after the election, according to a statement written by Facebook Vice President of Policy and Communications Elliot Schrage. (RELATED: Russian-Linked Ads Didn’t Reach Most Facebook Users Until AFTER Election Day)
The ads “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” according to a blog post written by Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos.
The Russian linked ads hosted on Facebook represent a tiny fraction of overall ad spending on the platform and likely did very little to sway election results, according to Axios reporter Sarah Fischer.
Representatives from Facebook and Twitter will appear on Capitol Hill Nov. 1 to answer questions related to their role in disseminating political misinformation. They will also likely be asked to present strategies designed to prevent future election meddling.
Google representatives have not yet said whether they will appear to provide testimony to congressional investigators.
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