Wisconsin and Michigan were targeted with Russia-linked Facebook ads with anti-Muslim messages during the 2016 campaign, CNN reported Wednesday, citing four unnamed sources with “direct knowledge.”
Both states voted narrowly for Donald Trump, playing a pivotal role in his presidential election win. That Russians targeted them with social-media ads suggests a degree of sophistication in one part of what the U.S. intelligence community has called a widespread cyber-interference effort in the 2016 U.S. campaign.
Facebook recently provided more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to congressional committees investigating Russian election interference.
The exact ad contents have not yet been made public, though a few reportedly have been leaked or identified by reporters. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that he won’t release the ads but wouldn’t object if Facebook did so.
One source told CNN some of the ads were aimed at reaching voters “who may be susceptible to anti-Muslim messages, even suggesting that Muslims were a threat to the American way of life.”
During the campaign, Trump called to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
The revelation comes days after U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials told Wisconsin election officials that Russia-linked hackers unsuccessfully targeted the state’s voter registration system in 2016.
With Wisconsin being one of the most politically divided states, Dave Schroeder, a U.S. Navy intelligence officer and cybersecurity expert at UW-Madison, said it’s no surprise Russian actors are targeting it. Doing so provides “the highest return on investment,” he said.
Schroeder said the interference efforts hint at more to come in future elections.
“Because states like Wisconsin and Michigan will be critical to elections, and because of the apparent success of these operations to date, we can expect to see more of it,” Schroeder said.
That mirrored what Burr and the lead Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said in a Wednesday news conference.
“The Russian intelligence service is determined, clever and I recommend every campaign and every elected official take this seriously,” Burr said.
Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, in a blog post written last month, said it found about $100,000 in ad spending from 2015 through 2017 linked to accounts that “likely operated out of Russia.” About one-quarter of those ads were geographically targeted within the U.S., Stamos wrote.
Until now, little was known about what locations were targeted.
Facebook estimated Monday that, in all, about 10 million users saw the Russian-backed ads.
In addition to Wisconsin and Michigan, some ran in the battleground states of Florida, Georgia and Ohio, as well as non-battlegrounds such as California, Maryland and New York, according to an NBC News report.
Schroeder said Russian actors appear to have bought ads on hot topics such as immigration, religion, and race. The ads were targeted “to individuals they believed the ads would resonate with most deeply — just as an advertiser would for a product they want someone to buy,” Schroeder said.
Citing the ads that have been publicly reported, he said they appeared as simple still image or video “memes,” shared from pages with names like “Secured Borders.”
One Secured Borders meme published by The Daily Beast last month shows a large Muslim family with the caption: “New modern warfare by birth rate. Taking over the countries without single bullet. But they won’t take over our country if we don’t let them in.”
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian election interference, and congressional committees want to know if Russians received help from Trump associates in where to target the ads, CNN reported.
CNN said White House officials could not be reached for comment on this story. The President and senior White House officials have long insisted they did not collude with Russia, with Trump dismissing the Russian Facebook ads, in particular, as a “hoax.”
The U.S. intelligence community consensus is that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election with the intent of helping elect Trump and undermine U.S. faith in its elections. The U.S. agencies found Russian operations included supporting the hacking of email systems of the U.S. political parties and relaying the emails to WikiLeaks, which later published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.