SANÂ FRANCISCO â€” Google for the first time hasÂ uncoveredÂ evidence that Russian operatives exploited the companyâ€™s platforms in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, according toÂ people familiar with the company’s investigation.
TheÂ Silicon Valley giant has found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agentsÂ who aimedÂ to spread disinformation across Googleâ€™s many products, which include YouTube, as well as advertising associated with Google search, Gmail, and the companyâ€™s DoubleClick ad network, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss mattersÂ that have not been madeÂ public. Google runs the worldâ€™s largest online advertising business, and YouTube is the worldâ€™s largest online video site.
The discovery by Google is also significant because the adsÂ do not appear to beÂ from the same Kremlin-affiliatedÂ troll farm that bought ads onÂ Facebook –Â a sign that the RussianÂ effort to spread disinformation online may beÂ aÂ much broader problem thanÂ Silicon Valley companies haveÂ unearthedÂ so far.
Google previously downplayed the problem of Russian meddling on its platforms. Last month, Google spokeswoman Andrea FavilleÂ told The Washington Post that the company is “always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies and we’ve seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms.”
Nevertheless, Google launched an investigation into the matter, as Congress pressedÂ technologyÂ companiesÂ toÂ determineÂ how Russian operativesÂ usedÂ social media, online advertising, and other digital tools to influence the 2016 presidential contest andÂ foment discord in U.S. society.
Google declined to provide a comment for this story. The people familiar with its investigation said that the company isÂ lookingÂ at a set of ads that costÂ less than $100,000Â and that it isÂ stillÂ sorting out whetherÂ all of theÂ ads came from trolls or whether some originated from legitimate Russian accounts.
To date, Google has mostly avoided the scrutiny that has fallen on its rival Facebook. The social network recently sharedÂ about 3,000 Russian-bought ads with Congressional investigators that were purchased by operatives associated with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-government affiliated troll farm, the company has said.
Some of the ads, which cost a total of about $100,000, touted Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and the Green party candidate Jill Stein during the campaign, people familiar withÂ those adsÂ said. Other ads appear to have been aimed atÂ fostering division in United StatesÂ by promoting anti-immigrant sentiment and racial animosity. Facebook has said those ads reached just 10 million of the 210 million U.S. users that log onto the service each month.
At least one outside researcher has said that the influence of RussianÂ disinformation on Facebook is much greater than the company has so farÂ acknowledged and encompassesÂ paid adsÂ as well asÂ posts publishedÂ on Facebook pages controlled by Russian agents. TheÂ posts were shared hundreds of millions of times, said Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
In a blog post, FacebookÂ wrote it is also looking atÂ an additional 2,200 adsÂ that may have not come from the Internet Research Agency.
“We also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia â€” even those with very weak signals of a connection and not associated with any known organized effort,” the company wroteÂ last month. “This was a broad search, including, for instance, ads bought from accounts with US IP addresses but with the language set to Russian â€” even though they didnâ€™t necessarily violate any policy or law. In this part of our review, we found approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads.”
Meanwhile, TwitterÂ said that it shut down 201 accounts associated with theÂ Internet Research Agency. It also disclosed that the account for the news site RT, whichÂ the companyÂ linked to the Kremlin, spent $274,100 on its platform in 2016. Twitter has not said how many times the Russian disinformation was shared. The company is investigating that matter and trying to map the relationship between Russian accounts and well-known media personalitiesÂ as well as influencers associated with the campaigns of Donald Trump and other candidates, said a person familiar withÂ Twitter’s internal investigation.Â RTÂ also has a sizeable presence on YouTube.
Twitter declined to comment for this story.
ExecutivesÂ for Facebook and Twitter will testify before Congressional investigators on Nov. 1. Google has not said whether it will accept a similarÂ invitation to do so.
U.S.Â intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russian president Vladmir Putin intervened in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump win. But Silicon Valley companies have received little assistance from the intelligence community, people familiar with theÂ companies’ probes said.
Google discovered the Russian presence on its platforms by siphoning data from another technology company, Twitter, the people familiar with Google’s investigation said. Twitter offers outsiders the ability to access a small amount of historical tweets for free, and charges developers for access to the entire Twitter firehose of data stemming back to 2006.
GoogleÂ downloaded the data from Twitter and was able to link Russian Twitter accounts to other accounts that had used Googleâ€™s services to buy ads, the people said. This was done without the explicit cooperation of Twitter, the people said.
Google’s probe is still in its early stages, the people said.Â The number of ads posted and the number of times those ads were clicked on could not be learned.Â Google is continuing to examineÂ its own records and is also sharing data with Facebook. Twitter andÂ Google have not cooperated with one another in their investigations.