Russian internet trolls accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections could have easily exploited Google’s advertising service to meddle in the November 2018 midterms, according to a report released on the eve of Wednesday’s tech hearings on Capitol Hill.
A watchdog group wrote in the report, “How to Sow Discord Using Google and $100,” that it recently bought several advertisements through Google’s AdWords platform using billing information and other details explicitly associated with the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” previously accused of interfering in the 2016 elections in part by purchasing political ads displayed to U.S. audiences during the race.
The ads contained similar language and some of the exact images used by the IRA in 2016, and they were successfully purchased with Russian currency in June using a Russian payment service and from an internet connection routed through St. Petersburg, the report said.
The ads directed viewers to websites previously connected to the Russian troll farm and ultimately appeared on several sites and major YouTube channels, including channels operated by CNN, CBS This Morning, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post and conservative commentator Ann Coulter, the report said.
“Google has failed to keep its promise to prevent foreign actors from interfering in our elections,” said Daniel E. Stevens, executive director of the watchdog that released the report, Campaign for Accountability. “Google is more interested in pocketing rubles than protecting American Democracy.”
Google criticized the report Tuesday and noted that Oracle, one of the company’s top competitors, has previously been identified as one of Campaign for Accountability’s funders.
“We have numerous technical indicators that weren’t triggered here,” said a Google spokesperson. “Had this been a real threat, it would’ve triggered our system, but this was a stunt.
Nonetheless, Google AdWords still allowed customers as of early Wednesday to create accounts using tax information and other records connected to the Internet Research Agency, Campaign for Accountability said through its Twitter account.
“Google, is the name, address and tax ID of the troll farm that led the Russian effort to meddle in the 2016 election not enough of a red flag for your systems? We were able to do the exact same thing again,” the group tweeted.
In addition to boosting misinformation and propaganda on social networks including Facebook and Twitter, Russian trolls spent a total of $4,700 advertising through Google during the 2016 election cycle, Google said last year.
More recently, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office filed criminal charges in February against several Russian nationals and companies accused of interfering in the 2016 race through the Internet Research Agency’s activities.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey both testified Wednesday during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the topic of Russian election interference, and Mr. Dorsey is expected to testify later Wednesday during a separate hearing in the House.
Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, was invited to testify the Senate hearing but did not attend, drawing rebuke Wednesday from lawmakers including the committee’s ranking Republican and Democrat.
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