The ad opens with a woman with a heavy French accent welcoming viewers to visit the Islamic State of France, where French school children are trained to defend the caliphate and the Mona Lisa is redressed in a burka. This fictional tourism video, which was shown online to voters in key swing states leading up to the 2016 election, was part of an ad campaign by the group Secure America Now, an advocacy group dedicated to inspiring fear and bigotry against Muslims and defeating Hilary Clinton, according to a report published Wednesday by Bloomberg.
Secure America Now reportedly paid both Google and Facebook millions in ad dollars for the ad campaign. But the tech companies didn’t just passively accept the funds. Google’s elections team worked directly with Secure America Now and Harris Media, the media firm that produced the ads, to make sure they hit their targeted audiences. Facebook took its assistance a step further and used the Secure America Now ad campaign to test a brand new vertical video feature, even building a case study on the campaign to test the performance of the vertical format. That case study, as Bloomberg reported, measured response to 12 different versions of a video called “Are We Safe?”, which superimposes photos of Muslims who have committed terrorist attacks in the U.S. over scenes of bright and sunny small-town America.
Watch the fake-tourism video from Secure America Now:
All of which means Facebook and Google both knew that their ad tools were being used by hateful groups in an effort to deepen political divides and stoke dangerous xenophobic sentiments in the run-up to the election. And all the posturing over the past few weeks, from Facebook in particular—suggesting the Russian-bought ads and fake news that proliferated on the website in the run-up to the election was difficult to foresee, isn’t exactly true.
The ads run by Secure America Now were fake tourism videos, perhaps obviously parody to some, but to others who aren’t as familiar with the hallmarks of a Parisian vacation, maybe not. The ads appear directly intended to stoke fear and prejudice between non-Muslims and Muslims before one of the most politically polarizing elections in modern U.S. history. And that’s not much different from what many of the Russian ads were looking to accomplish: pitting Americans against one another before Election Day.
Meanwhile, it took Twitter 11 months to shut down a Russian troll account pretending to represent the Tennessee Republic Party after it was flagged by the state’s actual Republican Party, according to a report Thursday from BuzzFeed. During that 11-month period, the real state GOP reported the fake account three times. By the time it was shut down in August, it had amassed around 136,000 followers. That account peddled fake news and intentionally hurtful and corrosive messages. For instance, BuzzFeed describes a tweet that claimed that an unarmed black man who was killed by the police deserved to die.
As we learn more about the role that massive online platforms played in manipulating Americans before Election Day 2016, the executives at the helms of these companies are losing cover. Facebook and Google helped Secure America Now use their ad tools to promote hate, push deceitful news, and rile Americans, and they profited generously. Twitter ignored warnings. Now all three companies have confirmed they will participate in a public hearing before Congress on Nov. 1 about the role their platforms played in the alleged Russian campaign to tilt the election. And it’s hard to imagine what kind of public-relations-speak they’ll use to try to claw themselves out of this one, since the hole they’ve dug for themselves keeps getting deeper.