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Google too finds Russia mischief

Different set of agents said to buy ads, exploit YouTube

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google for the first time has uncovered evidence that Russian operatives exploited the company's platforms in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the company's investigation.

The Silicon Valley giant has found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agents who aimed to spread disinformation across Google's many products, which include YouTube, as well as advertising associated with Google search, Gmail, and the company's DoubleClick ad network, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that have not been made public. Google runs the world's largest online advertising business, and YouTube is the world's largest online video site.

The discovery by Google is also significant because the ads do not appear to be from the same Kremlin-affiliated operation that bought ads on Facebook -- a sign that the Russian effort to spread disinformation online may be a much broader problem than Silicon Valley companies have unearthed so far.

Google previously downplayed the problem of Russian activities on its platforms. Last month, Google spokesman Andrea Faville 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."

[RUSSIA REPORT: Documents on Russian interference in election ]

Nevertheless, Google opened an investigation into the matter, as Congress pressed technology companies to determine how Russian operatives used social media, online advertising, and other digital tools to influence the 2016 presidential contest and foment discord in U.S. society.

Google investigators found $4,700 in ads tied to the Russian government, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company discovered another $53,000 in ad spending coming from Russia that it's scrutinizing further to determine whether it's connected with state-sponsored accounts or legitimate ad spending by Russian businesses. The New York Times earlier reported on the breakdown in ad spending, and The Washington Post first reported about Google's disclosure of the Russian ad activity.

To date, Google has mostly avoided the scrutiny that has fallen on its rival Facebook. The social network recently shared about 3,000 Russian-bought ads with congressional investigators that were purchased by operatives associated with the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-affiliated disinformation operation, 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 with those ads said. Other ads appear to have been aimed at fostering division in the United States 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 Russian disinformation on Facebook is much greater than the company has so far acknowledged and encompasses paid ads as well as posts published on Facebook pages controlled by Russian agents. The posts were shared hundreds of millions of times, said Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, Twitter said that it shut down 201 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency. It also disclosed that the account for the news site RT, which the company 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 personalities as well as influencers associated with the campaigns of Trump and other candidates, said a person familiar with Twitter's internal investigation. RT also has a sizable presence on YouTube.

Twitter declined to comment.

Executives for Facebook and Twitter will testify before congressional investigators on Nov. 1. Google has not said whether it will accept a similar invitation to do so.

Separately, the Daily Beast reported that Russia recruited fervent supporters of Trump to make YouTube videos that bashed his campaign opponent Hillary Clinton. The rap videos were put together by two black video bloggers, calling themselves Williams and Kalvin Johnson, whose social media pages investigators say are part of the broad Russian campaign to influence American politics.

The content was pulled from Facebook and Twitter in August after it was identified as Russian government-backed propaganda, the Daily Beast reported, but the YouTube page remained live until shortly after the news was disclosed Monday.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russian President Vladmir Putin intervened in the U.S. election to help Trump win. But Silicon Valley companies have received little assistance from the intelligence community, people familiar with the 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 trove of data stemming back to 2006.

Information for this article was contributed by Mark Bergen and Gerrit De Vynck of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 10/10/2017

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