On Thursday morning, Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee released 8 gigabytes of archives containing more than 3,500 documents detailing advertisements run on Facebook from 2015 to 2017 and paid for by Russians attempting to interfere in American politics.
We analyzed those files to get a better sense of how the Russian interference effort operated — and how well it worked.
Overall, the files provide information on thousands of ads, including data on when ad campaigns began, when they ended, how effective they were and how much they cost. The two months in which the most campaigns began were May 2016 and April 2017 — shortly before the Russian effort was curtailed. (No data for June 2017 were released.)
(The vertical dashed line indicates November 2016, the month of the presidential election.)
In total, the ad campaigns racked up more than 37 million impressions — how often the ad was displayed to a user. The three peak months for impressions were October 2016, December 2016 and February 2017.
But impressions are not engagement. In total, the ads were clicked on about 3.7 million times. Most of those clicks came after the election.
The most popular ad campaign was the one below, encouraging people to support the police. It was targeted generally to American adults with an interest in supporting law enforcement, including those with the following interests: “Support Law Enforcement, The Thin Blue Line, Officer Down Memorial Page, Police Wives Unite, National Police Wives Association or Heroes Behind The Badge.”
It earned 1.3 million impressions alone and 73,000 clicks. It ran starting Oct. 19, 2016.
Most of the campaigns were far less successful. About a quarter never received any impressions at all.
The Russians seemed to get better at enticing clicks over time. In January 2016, they were earning about three clicks for every 200 impressions. By May 2017, they were earning more than 10 times as many clicks. Unfortunately for their efforts, they had also landed on the radar screen of American law enforcement.
The ads didn’t cost very much. The Russians spent more than 95 million rubles — an amount that at current exchange rates is equal to about $95,000. The month with the most spending, according to our analysis, was October 2016, the month before the election.
Naturally, we were curious about how the effort compared before and after the election. Looking at ad campaigns started on or before Nov. 8, 2016 — pre-election — with those begun after that date, it’s clear that more campaign ads were run and more money spent before Trump’s election. The ads run afterward, though, were more successful.
The ad that earned the most clicks after the election was this one.
It received a bit under a million impressions and more than 56,000 clicks.
It also offers hints as to why engagement went up after the election. It’s certainly possible that, after Donald Trump’s win, the audience for provocative material increased significantly on the left, expanding the universe of people receptive to the Russians’ message.
Speaking of Trump, the first ads included in the House data began to run on June 9, 2015. The first three were weird Russian-language ads, but the next day ads focused on the Black Lives Matter movement began to run.
A week after the first ad, Trump declared his candidacy.