The Russian ads, released by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, offer the public the first in-depth look at the attempts to divide the U.S. ahead of the 2016 election. USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — In the months after Donald Trump rode to victory while calling for mass deportations, Russian operatives bought dozens of Facebook ads targeted at the Hispanic community seeking to further inflame tensions already roiled by the campaign’s racially charged rhetoric, according to USA TODAY analysis.
Thousands of ads released by House Democrats this month showed Russian operatives focused on race during the presidential election in what experts say was a clear effort to amplify existing divisions.
They didn’t stop there. In the first half of 2017, as Trump aggressively moved to restrict immigration, fake Facebook pages set up by a Russian propaganda operation started pushing ads on both sides of the immigration debate.
One set of ads targeted users who had shown interest in Hispanic and Latino culture with pro-immigration messages. Another set zeroed in on users whose views aligned with Trump on immigration and deportation.
The aim? To stir outrage on both sides, propaganda expert James Ludes says.
“Because at the end of the day, the Russians don’t really care what the policy is, they care about the divisiveness that the issue itself engenders,” says Ludes, vice president for public research and initiatives at Salve Regina University. “They want to amp up the divisiveness and give it as loud a voice as they possibly can.”
A USA TODAY review of all 3,500 ads found that hundreds of them related to immigration or targeted Hispanics. Most of the ads ran after the election. They were shown millions of times.
Like the Facebook campaigns that targeted African Americans to heighten tensions over racism and police brutality during the presidential election, stoking resentment in the Hispanic community after the election was a part of the Russians’ strategy to destabilize American democracy, says Nicholas Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
A federal grand jury in February indicted 13 people accused of working for the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy organization with ties to the Kremlin, to produce the Facebook ads. The indictment included emails from the Russian operation’s employees that left no doubt that their objectives were “to sow discord in the U.S. political system.”
“(The Russians) were in it for the long game. Their objective was not to see Trump elected president, but to see the United States undermined by its own political inconsistencies and divisions,” Cull says. “The Russians don’t want a happy Trump presidency. They are not Trump’s friends. They want the American system to fail.”
Tensions were running high in early 2017. During the campaign, Trump accused Mexicans of being “rapists,” vowed to build a wall on the border of Mexico and swiftly deport “bad hombres,” prompting Spanish language media giant Univision to run a pointed anti-Trump campaign to get out the vote. Though Trump got more Latino support than expected, overwhelmingly, they voted against Trump.
Latino leaders in some parts of the U.S. organized against Trump and his policies, recruiting candidates to run for local and national office and urging the adoption of so-called “sanctuary cities,” which limit cooperation with federal authorities seeking to detain immigrants. And in February 2017, Latinos walked off the job in a national “Day Without Immigrants.”
Trump’s threat to scrap Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that shields from deportation nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, provided more ammunition for the Russians’ Facebook campaign.
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In May, operatives recirculated authentic social media posts of Hispanics in graduation caps bearing defiant messages. One of those was an Instagram post from a young woman graduate with her cap emblazoned with the words: “Job-stealing immigrant.” The post went viral and was spotted by the Russians, who made an ad out of it.
Rep. Joaquín Castro, a Democrat from Texas who sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, deplored the Russians ads targeting the Hispanic community, calling the propaganda campaign “the most brazen example of Russia’s intent to weaponize our social media platforms, divide and polarize our political system and exploit frustration and anger held by the American public.”
Facebook on Thursday expanded new rules requiring disclosures for political ads to include all U.S. ads on hot-button issues such as gun control and abortion, a step company executives say is critical to prevent Russian operatives and other bad actors from meddling in the upcoming midterm elections.
The targeting of Hispanics on Facebook began in earnest in December 2016, with Russian operatives spending nearly 60,000 rubles, about $1,000, on an ad promoting the “Brown Power” page as “a platform designed to educate, entertain and connect Chicanos in the U.S.,” according to information released by Facebook to Congress.
The ad was shown almost 1 million times, putting the fake Russian page in the thick of one of the nation’s most polarizing issues at a tumultuous moment in U.S. politics.
“Brown Power” displayed a clenched fist surrounded by Mexican flags and mimicked the tone and content of Facebook accounts belonging to legitimate Hispanic activists.
The ads the Facebook page ran targeted Hispanics using interests identified by Facebook such as “Mexican pride,” “lowrider,” “Hispanidad,” and “La Raza.” They embraced Internet memes popular with Hispanics to whip up anger over deportation and other hot-button issues. Many ads were shown tens of thousands of times, some hundreds of thousands of times.
One ad shows a man hiking through the desert in a straw hat, carrying a backpack and a jug of water: “Mi papa cruzaria 100 fronteras para darme una vida mejor.” “My dad would cross 100 borders to give me a better life.” Another condemned the deportation of an Afghanistan War veteran: “Miguel Perez is a real hero, who was betrayed by America. When will we have real justice in this country?”
A politically polar opposite set of Facebook ads were shown on other Russian-operated pages.
One ad showed a photograph of a man wearing a T-shirt that says “They can’t deport us all” with the message in bold yellow type, “YES WE CAN!” Another showed a mug shot of a Mexican accused of raping a 13-year-old on a Greyhound bus, alleging he had been deported from the U.S. 19 times. “19 times!!! That’s why we need a wall,” the ad read.
The Russian use of social media is a new twist on Cold War-era tactics, says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University who tracks Russian propaganda activity in Latin America.
Moscow’s efforts to deepen racial and ethnic unease in the U.S. go back decades, when intelligence operatives posed as American political activists and took out ads in newspapers or posted fliers.
In the Internet age, Facebook became critical in helping Russian operatives reach large swaths of the Hispanic population in the U.S. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. Latino adults who are online use Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. Three-quarters of them get their news from the Internet, nearly equal to the share who get their news from television.
Some of the Brown Power ads struck a lighter tone, but many were militant. They hit on longstanding grievances from indigenous peoples, such as this quotation lifted from Gloria Anzaldúa, an American scholar of Chicana cultural theory: “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is. And will be again.”
“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” said one ad. “Hate illegal immigration?” asked another with a black-and-white photograph of a Native American. “Splendid! When do you leave?”
The Russians also referred to whites by a pejorative term “gabachos,” (“the scariest thing for gabachos — strong and educated Mexican family!”).
Some ads targeted at Hispanics encouraged them to join forces with African Americans against whites. “What your books won’t tell you: THE FIRST TOWN in the Americas TO FREE AFRICAN SLAVES WAS YANCA, MEXICO,” one ad said.
Another warned of the dangers of infighting among minorities. “Indigenous black civilizations of America and our civilizations were ruined by the same gabachos,” it read. “They will be ruling us while we would be too busy fighting each other! So, don’t let this happen! Help black people in their struggle and let them help us!”
Said Gamarra: “The Russians have been looking at how they could not only disturb how the U.S. elections are run, but how they could exacerbate tensions within different groups in the U.S.”
“The Russians essentially have one goal: They would like to see an ungovernable United States. Their view is that the more racial and ethnic tension we have in the U.S., the less governable it is going to be.”
Brad Heath in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn on Twitter @jguynn