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Two Democratic senators recently created a fictitious group to prove just how easy it is to target specific people with fake news.
Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota built a group on Facebook and named it "Americans for Disclosure Solutions " which has the acronym ADS. The senators then paid Facebook to show ads to journalists and staffers on the Hill. The news was first reported by Axios.
According to data provided to CNBC by Senator Warner's office, $20 was enough to reach 1,369 Hill staffers in under 24 hours. An additional $20 allowed the fake Facebook group to target 1,407 Washington, D.C.-based journalists, a spokesperson for the Senator's office explained.
"That's a pretty good ROI – you can see why this would be so appealing to the Russians, and anybody else who is trying to target Americans in order to sow division and discord," a spokesperson in Senator Warner's office told CNBC. "There are no existing policies in place to prevent running nefarious ads on Facebook. Despite registering ADS on Facebook as a "Political Organization," we were able to run an ad campaign without providing basic information necessary to ensure compliance with federal, state or local election laws, such as campaign contact information, candidate ID, etc."
"Online political advertising represents an enormous marketplace, and today there is almost no transparency. The Russians realized this, and took advantage in 2016 to spread disinformation and misinformation in an organized effort to divide and distract us," Senator Warner said. "Our bipartisan Honest Ads Act extends transparency and disclosure to political ads in the digital space. At the end of the day, it is not too much to ask that our most innovative digital companies work with us by exercising additional judgment and providing some transparency."
The Senators were making a point: They could easily create a group and spread any narrative without having to prove who they were or what they stood for. This is what Russian-linked operatives were allegedly doing ahead of and during the U.S. presidential campaign, and why Facebook, Google and Twitter representatives testified on Capitol Hill this week. The House Intelligence Committee recently published several of the ads that Russian-controlled groups were posting.
Facebook was not immediately available for comment.