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How Russian Facebook ads used race and religion to inflame divisions

Russian-backed Facebook ads sought to influence the American democratic process from abroad. (Video: Joyce Koh, Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post, Photo: JIM YOUNG/The Washington Post)

This week, we got a small glimpse of the 3,000 Facebook ads and Twitter accounts created by Russian actors to influence the 2016 presidential election. The extent to which the ads may have influenced U.S. voters is unknown, but their contents show how Russian operatives used anger and resentment in an attempt to deepen tensions and influence American politics.

Some of the ads take a clearly pro-Trump, anti-Clinton position, but some are more nuanced, using race and religion to pit Americans against each other. You can see a detailed analysis of how they did that in the video above, and some examples of ads they used to do it below.

Russian actors seem to have attempted to influence both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement. This ad from July 20, 2015, shows Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, all young black men who died at the hand of the police. It ran one month after the Charleston, S.C., church shooting, and also around the one-year anniversaries of the deaths of Eric Garner and Brown. It was targeted at users who lived in Atlanta; Maryland; Ferguson, Mo.;  and Virginia, who had “liked” certain African American news sites.

On the other end of the spectrum is this sponsored post from Oct. 14-16, 2016.

Posted under the group name “Being Patriotic,” it references the case of Kirk Figueroa, a 33-year-old African American man who allegedly shot two officers before being killed by police. The text calls it “another gruesome attack on police by a BLM movement activist.” No mainstream media outlet tied Figueroa to the movement, but the connection was widespread on conspiracy sites. The photo used is from the July 2016 funeral of Dallas police officer Brent Thompson, who was shot by a sniper at a BLM rally in Dallas. The police in Figueroa’s case were wounded but survived.

Russian actors also used religion, Islam in particular, in an attempt to inflame and divide.

Purporting to be from a group called “United Muslims of America,” this ad appears to endorse Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. It appeared on Facebook on March 17 and 18, 2016. United Muslims of America is an actual group, but this was not their post.

United Muslims of America appears again later in the campaign, between June 24 and July 6. This post shows Hillary Clinton meeting Yemeni human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman. This meeting happened in October 2011 while Clinton was secretary of state.

This was posted shortly after a Muslim man, claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, killed 50 people in a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub.  Anti-Muslim sentiment was spiraling and the Justice Department’s probe of Clinton’s emails was drawing to a close without any charges.

So far, only a small batch of the 3,000 Russian Facebook ads and Twitter accounts have been released, so it is not clear how representative the sample is. We do know Russian ads like these were seen by as many as 126 million Americans, so it’s likely they helped shape American discourse on race and religion, and as a consequence, the 2016 presidential campaign.