Date
21 November 2017
Facebook has identified several accounts linked to a Russian entity that bought political ads and posted divisive content in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Photo: Bloomberg
Facebook has identified several accounts linked to a Russian entity that bought political ads and posted divisive content in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Photo: Bloomberg

What marketers can learn from Russian entity’s Facebook trick

It has now come to light that a Russian government-linked “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) had created Facebook content that reached more than 125 million Americans over a two-year period and managed to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election.

And all of this by spending just US$100,000, according to reports. 

The IRA-linked accounts posted more than 80,000 pieces of content between January 2015 and August 2017 and up to 126 million people in the US may have been exposed to the content, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch told a US Senate panel this week.

About 29 million people were served content directly from the IRA, and if sharing among users is accounted for, a total of “approximately 126 million people” may have been exposed to it, Stretch said.

“Most of the ads appear to focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” Stretch said, adding that “it was seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other.”

IRA has spent around US$100,000 on more than 3,000 ads between June 2015 and August 2017, according to Facebook. The small budget compared with the wide reach is really striking. To put things in perspective, just a quarter of a page on leading US media outlets such as New York Times or the Washington Post may cost an advertiser more than US$100,000.

How did IRA do it?

Well, according to Facebook, IRA-bought ads promoted roughly 120 IRA-generated Facebook Pages, and when these pages accumulated a certain amount of users, the would post some sensational content to encourage users to like or follow these posts.

But not everyone can copy this trick.

IRA was able to attract so many eyeballs largely because it has made up fake or sensational news to woo more users, stories such as Hillary Clinton’s possible death from heart attack or alien abduction claims of a Republican congressional candidate. That has created a so-called viral marketing effect.

Among other things, this saga has highlighted the difference between social media platforms and traditional media outlets. Advertisers can sometimes make a big splash with a tiny budget.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is one good example. It was an activity involving the dumping of a bucket of ice and water over a person’s head to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Related videos posted on Facebook went viral, helping the organizer to raise nearly US$200 million, up more than 30 times from previous year.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the most successful viral marketing cases.

To get the most out of each advertising dollar, corporates can learn from these examples and figure out innovative ideas to leverage social media platforms.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 2

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

RC

Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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