Posts that circulated to a targeted, swing-state audience on the social media site railed against illegal immigrants and claimed “the only viable option is to elect Trump.” They were shared by what looked like a grassroots American, anti-immigrant group called Secured Borders, but Congressional investigators say the group is actually a Russian fabrication designed to influence American voters during and after the presidential election.
ABC News retrieved several posts from the now-defunct group’s page using online archives and found that many of them include pointed, pro-Trump messages.
“Good Lord, we really need that wall,” read another using an image of popular children's cartoon Dora the Explorer, dated Oct. 22. “We need to stop this madness. We need Trump.”
The posts didn’t stop following Trump’s victory, with one from December using an image of Trump dressed as Santa Claus saying “Remember about this stupid PC idea to forbid people from saying ‘Merry Christmas’, instead forcing them to say ‘happy holidays’. … I say come Christmas 2017, a YUGE Nativity scene should occupy the lawn of 1600 Penn Ave!”
“We are in a new world,” Zuckerberg said. “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”
At the root of the challenge are so-called “troll farms” where workers sit in rows of tables and create online profiles that push divisive messages, all aimed at sowing discord. Facebook told Congressional investigators about one operation that was especially busy during the 2016 campaign, a St. Petersburg-based firm called the Internet Research Agency.
In an interview with ABC News, Lyudmila Savchuk, who worked for the company in 2015 to expose what the factory was doing, described how young Russians posed as Americans, working 12 hour shifts at the company’s headquarters posting comments on American political issues selected by their bosses. Facebook, she said, was one of their primary platforms.
“Troll factory is a very appropriate name for it because it really is a large-scale production that works around the clock, and they don't take time off for holidays, lunch nor sleep,” she said. “A huge quantity of content is being produced.”
Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos said most of the posts generated there did not mention a specific presidential candidate or the election, but focused on “amplifying divisive social and political messages” on immigration, gun rights and LGBT issues.
Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook, told ABC News the Russian effort may have started as merely an attempt to sow discontent, but as the campaign unfolded, he said it became clear the effort grew increasingly focused.
“Classic Russian intelligence techniques of taking the most extreme voices and amplifying them,” he said. “It was the perfect petri dish for this kind of campaign.”
The Russian company behind Secure Borders spent money to target its ads to specific audiences, including crucial swing voting blocks, Warner said. That effort involved a degree of sophistication that confounded him.
“How did they know how to target [the audience] with such exquisite specificity?” he asked. “Frankly, [the posts appeared] in areas where the Democrats were, perhaps, a little bit asleep at the switch? How did they have that level of specificity? That's one of the questions we need answered.”
ABC News’s Patrick Reevell, Cho Park, Randy Kreider, and Alex Hosenball contributed to this report.