In the midst of the frenzy of trying to determine how Russia influenced the US elections through buying ads on Facebook, The San Diego Union Tribune reminds us that basically everyone—including the US government—can buy ads on the platform to push their agenda.
Carl Prine, an investigative reporter at the paper, writes that in two campaigns between 2011 and 2016, US agencies spent nearly $60,000 on ads intended for Russian-language speakers, according to government spending records. The bulk of that amount was promotion for Voice of America (VOA), the country’s government-run news outlet whose primary audience is overseas. The rest went toward publicizing the American consulate in the city of Yekaterinburg—both very different efforts than the Russian ads that were reportedly designed to stoke tensions in election swing states.
In the last eight years, the US government, including the State Department and aid agency USAID, bought more Facebook ads in Russia than in only four other countries: Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan.
VOA, launched during World War II as a response to Nazi propaganda, has struggled over its identity as a news outlet in recent years. When the Trump administration took the reins, staffers voiced concern over becoming a mouthpiece for the president’s agenda.
Earlier this year, VOA, along with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty launched Current News, a 24/7 news network in Russian, as America’s answer to the widely-consumed Russian government-run network RT and online platform Sputnik. Comparatively, the American efforts have a much smaller reach. VOA, long criticized for being ineffectual at countering Russian propaganda, can’t place its content in Russian news outlets, so it operates on a “digital first strategy,” according to its website. Current News is not carried by Russian cable providers, and is only available by satellite, The Economist reported when the channel first launched.
It’s unclear how well Facebook ads can drive traffic to VOA’s content. Facebook is dominated in Russia by its domestic copy-cat VKontakte, which according to some counts has twice the number of users, and is controlled by Russia’s richest man and Kremlin ally. What’s more, the Russian media regulator threatened recently it would shut down Facebook if it didn’t start storing Russian user data on domestic servers.