Since the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook, lawmakers and the public have learned bit by bit how the Russian government influenced the outcome through social media. With the release of the redacted Mueller report, most of that information is now in one place, and it comes with some new details which explain just how the Russian government used Facebook to sway public opinion.
Around early 2015, the Russian Government's Internet Research Agency started creating fake social media accounts, pretending to be U.S. citizens aligned with organizations like the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter. According to the Special Counsel's report, the "main idea" was to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton]" or any other candidate except for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
These accounts also organized and promoted grassroots events and political rallies inside the United States. While posing as activists, the IRA would personally message Facebook users and ask them to attend an event. They would encourage an unwitting U.S. citizen to step up as the coordinator for these events and even get them to act as a media contact for news outlets. In 2016, the group organized 3 pro-Trump rallies in New York, as well as a series of pro-Trump rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania.
While these efforts started with individual accounts, their reach grew as the election went on. To reach an even wider set of Facebook users, the IRA spent $100,000 on ad space to promote their fake groups. By the time they were deactivated in 2017, some IRA groups had collected more than 300,000 followers. Facebook said in total, the IRA reached more than 100 million Americans.
"Just recently, on the basis of a more complete and sophisticated analysis, the original estimate that 10 million Americans were exposed to Russian-origin content on Facebook was increased to 126 million," U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said at a hearing in 2017. "That tells me that your companies are just beginning to come to grips with the scale and the depth of the problem."
Since then, Facebook has taken swifter, stronger action against outside actors who abuse its service, with some success. As recently as April 2018, the company removed 70 Facebook accounts not for their content, but simply because they were controlled by the IRA.