Are you a target? UW researcher finds Russian groups aim political ads at American voters

MADISON, Wis. — Even as Coronavirus concerns cancel long-time events left and right, Wisconsin still gets closer to the election every day.

As we get closer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison anticipates foreign interference attempts will continue.

Researcher and Professor Young Mie Kim analyzed millions of digital political ads as part of her research ahead of the 2016 election. In it, she found evidence that Russian groups with links to the Kremlin had placed ads online in an attempt to sow division in American society.

Kim said she is seeing similar interference beginning again ahead of the 2020 election.

“One thing clear is that this is very systematic,” Kim said. “So it is relatively early because we captured this in a post in September 2019, so it was a few months before the Iowa caucus, but they already started a very systematic operation.”

The ads don’t look much different than a meme one might run across by oneself, and the groups they come from seem home grown.

However, when Kim tracked the ads back to the source, she saw they came from Russian groups, and their messages aimed at division across and within political ideologies.

“They exploit the sharp divide in our society,” Kim said.

Facebook gives advertisers the tools to show their ads only to certain audiences. Kim said this year, one group specifically targeted is feminists, both conservative and liberal.

This far ahead of the election, Kim said the ads focus on divisive messages that can gain the group followers. Closer to November, she’s watching for the efforts to mimic what happened in 2016, where groups put out messages to suppress voters in four main ways:

1. Election boycotts. Kim said this makes voters feel like there is no point in voting.

“Like generally speaking, don’t go vote,” she said. “Election doesn’t matter. Neither candidate serves us. Don’t go to the poll.”

2. Deception. Kim said this gives voters bad information about the election and Election Day.

“Lying about time, location and manner of voting,” she said. “For example, ‘Text your vote to avoid long line.’”

3. Third-Party Candidate Promotion. Kim said this seeks to draw support away from the Democratic and Republican nominees. In 2016, she saw these Russian groups promoting Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson to conservatives and Green Party candidate Jill Stein to liberals.

4. Same-side candidate attacks. Kim said these aim to keep people from voting for the person nominated as the candidate for their party.

“In 2016 for example, African Americans and Bernie supporters are targeted with anti-Clinton messages, so then they don’t like Clinton and decide not to go to the poll,” Kim said.

Much of these efforts in 2020 are still unknown to the people educating voters, such as those at the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin.

Eileen Newcomer, a voter education manager with the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said she and her colleagues try to put up as much information they can on elections, voting and issues up for a vote.

“I would say the bulk of our work is working on empowering voters, giving them resources, helping them get the information they need to have their voices heard on Election Day,” Newcomer said.

She said she hadn’t heard much information on Kim’s research, but she said her organization tries to fight misinformation when they can be directing people to sources they can trust, such as the Wisconsin Elections Commission.