Russia’s Facebook Ads Could Spell Trouble for Any American Who Lent a Hand

Moscow, Russia

A Kremlin-linked firm spent at least six figures on political Facebook ads in the 2016 elections. But any Americans who may have lent a hand to the private company being called a “troll farm” with ties to Putin may be in the greatest legal jeopardy. 

Facebook’s spokespeople told Congressional investigators on Sept. 6, 2017 that it had traced at least $100,000 in ad sales to a shadowy Russian group. This is the first time a private company has acknowledged receiving Russian money for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election, and appears to be a confirmation that Russian nationals did indeed violate the law.

U.S. law prohibits a foreign national from spending any money in connection with U.S. elections. That includes any contributions directly to a candidate or his campaign, as well as any “expenditure”—meaning any money spent for the purpose of influencing an election.

Some of the Russia-backed ads expressly named Clinton and Trump, whereas others, according to Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Facebook hasn’t made the ads public, but it appears that at least some of the ads would meet the legal definition of “expenditure,” and that the Russian nationals who bought the ads did indeed violate the law by making prohibited campaign expenditures.

Russia is highly unlikely to extradite anybody to the U.S. But any American who helped the Russians with those Facebook ads may also have violated the law.

Federal law not only prohibits a foreign national from making a campaign expenditure, it also prohibits anybody else from “knowingly providing substantial assistance” in the making of such an expenditure.

Facebook acknowledged that about one-quarter of the ads in question were “geographically targeted,” and others may have targeted particular messages to particular audiences—raising questions about whether the Russians received help from any Americans. 

If any American — associated with the Trump campaign or not — did provide any such assistance, they very well may have violated the law.

This is a separate question from whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia on the Facebook ads. For purposes of campaign finance law, an ad is “coordinated” if (generally speaking) it is made at the request or suggestion of, or in consultation or concert with, a candidate or his campaign. A coordinated expenditure is treated as a contribution to the campaign, which means that if the spender is a foreign national, then the campaign itself would have accepted an illegal foreign national contribution.

But any person — associated with the Trump campaign or not — can still violate the ban on substantially assisting a foreign national’s campaign expenditure even if their conduct doesn’t meet the high legal bar of “coordinating” with the foreign national. So if an American helped the Russian firm target or select themes for the Facebook ads, for example, they may have run afoul of the law.

The Russian “troll farm” that bought these ads might be beyond the reach of prosecutors and Congressional investigators. But any American that may have helped the firm is not.

Brendan directs CLC’s work before federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission (FEC).