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Facebook, Russia and the US elections - what you need to know

Facebook’s disclosure of a likely Russia-linked advertising campaign appears plausible. The revelation raises new questions about the Trump campaign and highlights an old misunderstanding by the Kremlin.

Facebook thumbs up in an eye

How credible is Facebook's revelation of a possibly Russian-backed political ad campaign in the US?

The information that an operation likely based in Russia was behind ad buys driving politically divisive messages on Facebook in a two-year period around the US election stems only from the social network itself and so far has not been independently verified. However, Russia observers consider Facebook's revelation plausible as it tallies with known efforts by the Kremlin to try and influence election outcomes.     

It also fits with:

- Old-style Soviet attempts to undermine and cause chaos in the political systems of its adversaries

- Alleged interference in the US election 

- The Kremlin's "general playbook of trying to use online information to influence politics in other countries," says Joshua Tucker, the director of the Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia at New York University.

According to a Pew study from last year, 68 percent of all Americans and 79 percent of all Americans who are online use Facebook. The world's largest social network is increasingly emerging as a dominant information hub which is why it would make sense for Russia, or any other actor intent on influencing the US election, to target American voters there.

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Why is this comparatively small effort important given previous scandals about Russian meddling in the US election?

The $100,000 allegedly spent by the Russian-backed operation on 3,000 ads connected to less than 500 accounts is miniscule in comparison to the nearly $1 billion the Federal Election Commission says was spent on the US election campaign.

But it is impossible to know whether this alleged effort was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Russian ad buys or related activities on social media platforms or whether it was simply a test balloon to see what could be done and whether it worked.

What the experts say:

- "In no way shape or form could we call this the ceiling on what may have been activities designed to influence opinion about candidates or issues during the election,"  said Joshua Tucker, director of the Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia at New York University.

- "The reason why you run an add on social media is because you can target it to someone in Detroit who is upset about the oil industry and trade issues and you can make sure they see the ad on trade issues," explained Tucker.

- "Most importantly, it reveals a level of sophistication about US public opinion that is pretty striking," said Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College and director of the US-Russia program at Columbia University.

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If the Kremlin was involved, would this represent a big win for Moscow?

Arguments in favor: 

- If the Facebook disclosure is true, then it certainly highlights how Russia has not only the know-how and the means, but also the political will to try to influence election outcomes in a country like the United States.

- Such a brazen and sophisticated effort would probably not have been thought possible by many Americans prior to last year's election.  

Arguments against:

- Russia has figured out how to try and influence public opinion and the presidential election, but has failed to grasp that the Congress, and also the judiciary, can curb the president's actions.

- "It's a basic problem that Russian intelligence and Russian analysis of the United States has had for many years dating back to Soviet times: They never understood the role of Congress in the US political system," according to Marten.

What does this mean for the investigation into the Trump campaign's potential connections with Russia?

That is the big and so far unanswered question. The Facebook revelation certainly raises the temperature again for the investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into possible connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

"It absolutely raises the question of where are the alleged Russian operators getting the information from about who should be targeted with what types of issues?" said Tucker.

Watch video 04:19

Russian hackers to target German elections

Does Facebook's revelation have any implication for the upcoming German election?

Yes. Russia reportedly tried to interfere in the US and French election, and so Germany, which has also been allegedly targeted before, should be prepared as well.

Read more: Hackers find flaws in German election vote-counting software

"It would be very surprising if they did not try it in Germany, especially because Putin's career history is centered on Dresden and he is a fluent German speaker," said Marten.

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