Over two days of testimony from representatives of the three main social media purveyors -- Facebook, Google, and Alphabet -- on November 1, the House Intelligence Committee released social media ads that were produced on Facebook by groups linked to Russia that sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some media reports have identified specific political groups that may have been swayed by Russian manipulation of the media.
(Above is image released by the Senate linking protests on Facebook)
The ads provided the best insight so far to lawmakers and the public as to the extent Russia meddled in American debates over politics and social issues. Posts distributed free on Facebook, however, reached as many as 126 million Americans, Facebook said, far more than the 11.4 million who saw the ads. The committee released a sampling of the 3,000 ads that Russians bought through 470 accounts during the 2016 presidential campaign and afterward. They revealed an acute understanding of how to use the Facebook platform to influence social media users. Many of the ads made appeals to voters on issues that included immigration, coal mining, Second Amendment rights, activism among black Americans and Islam.
Some of the ads called on voters to attend rallies both for and against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before and after the election. The ads targeted users with interests that ranged from gun enthusiasts, residents of specific states, Southerners interested in “Dixie”, and partisans of Trump, Clinton, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), whose state hosts the headquarters of the three social media moguls, scolded the lawyers representing the corporations for not doing enough self-policing. “I don’t think you get it,” said Feinstein. “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country. We are not going to go away, gentlemen. And this is a very big deal.”
In one ad released by the legislators, a Russian-controlled group called Heart of Texas announced that it would rally at the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston on May 21, 2016 to “Stop Islamization of Texas.” About 12,000 people viewed the announcement. Another group controlled by Russia, United Muslims of America, publicized that it would rally a counter-protest at the same place and time to “Save Islamic Knowledge,” thus indicating that Russians hoped to see a face-off on the part of the competing groups.
The prospect of online antics affecting real life appeared to stun the legislators.
Russians used separate Facebook pages operated from St. Petersburg, Russia, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Burr said during the Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday that the promotion and organization of the events on Facebook cost Russia "about $200." He said, "Facebook enabled that event to happen.” Directing himself at the representatives of the social media moguls, he said, "I'm certain that our adversaries are learning from the Russian activities ... You must do better to protect the American people, and all of your users, from this kind of manipulation."
(May 21, 2016 protest and counter-protest at Da'Wah Center in Houston)
The “United Muslims of America” page on Facebook, according to The Daily Beast, was simulating a real nonprofit organization. Senator Burr said that 2,700 people saw an ad placed by the account that targeted people in Houston. According to a an August 21, 2016 report by KIAH News Fix story, on that date, Heart of Texas organized a protest against the Da’wah Center -- a mosque and Muslim cultural center in Houston. A protester who supported the rally, Ken Reed, said “We feel that Texas, our great state, and the United States is being threatened by the influx of Islam."
At the same time, the "Houston Counter Rally Against Hate" staged a counter-protest. Ramon Mejia, who was identified as a co-organizer of the group, said according to News Fix, "We're here to show the Muslim community that there are people of faith based and non-faith based philosophies standing in solidarity against racist bigots trying to intimidate them."
Spero News reached out to Mejia on Facebook about reports that the counter-protest was spurred by Russian ads on Facebook. He was asked by Spero News whether he was influenced by Facebook ads to organize the counter-protest, with a reference to a story on Wednesday by Business Insider citing the Senate Intelligence committee about how the two competing rallies were advertised.
Mejia responded, “I’ll be contacting the author of this bogus article.” Spero News also asked Mejia for his thoughts about the accusation that he was under the influence of Russia. On his Twitter page, Mejia revealed his message to the author of the Business Insider article, Natasha Bertrand: “Wrong!”
WRONG! https://t.co/Wft8KTVOFE— Ramon Mejía (@MejiaSouth) November 1, 2017
"What neither side could have known was that Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets." https://t.co/ryres2da7b— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) November 1, 2017
Mejia did not respond to Spero News directly. However, he made a post on Thursday identifying himself as one of the organizers of the counter-demonstration. He wrote, “It’s fascinating that not only does Sen Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, present incomplete information and misrepresent the events of that day, but then media outlets and publications run the story without doing a cursory fact-check.” He included what he said were images of what he called “The Fake Event,” contending it was never used by his group “nor influential in mobilizing anyone.” The other image he offered was of what he called “The Real Event,” which he said consisted of a “diverse coalition of Houston residents...who came together to support the Muslim community.”
In a related case, a Facebook group that called itself BlackMatters recruited Americans who were supposedly unaware of its links to Russia and its efforts influence and organize political events. “I thought it was a knockoff of Black Lives Matter,” said an organizer to BuzzFeed News. Having supposedly worked with the group unwittingly, he changed his mind when after looking at the group’s website which he thought “looked legit.”
On his Facebook account, Mejia revealed his interest in Latino culture, leftist politics, and Islam. Regarding his work and education, Mejia lists himself as working presently as a regional organizer for Veterans Challenge Islamophobia, as well as for Iraq Veterans Against the War. He is a member of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, Common Defense, and Vets vs Hate. He claims an association with the University of Texas at Austin. He also lists the pseudonym Abu Ibrahim Al-Maksiki, while Ramon Mejia is listed as his birth name.