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Fake Facebook Ads Adeptly Used Fear and Anger To Divide Americans

Facebook users scrolling through their feeds in fall 2016 faced a minefield of targeted advertisements pitting blacks against police, southern whites against immigrants, gun owners against Obama supporters, and the LGBTQ community against the conservative right.

Placed by Russian trolls, they didn’t aim to prop up one candidate or cause, but to turn Americans against one another. The ads were cheaply made, full of threatening, vulgar language — and remarkably effective.

A new analysis of more than 2,500 of the ads finds they prompted clickthrough rates as much as nine times higher than what is typical in digital advertising.

“We found that fear and anger appeals work really well in getting people to engage,” said lead author Dr. Chris Vargo, an assistant professor of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study, published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, is the first to take a comprehensive look at ads placed by the infamous Russian propaganda machine known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), according to the researchers.

The study aimed to answer two questions: How effective were the ads? And what makes people click on them?

While focused on ads running in 2016, the study’s findings resonate in the age of COVID-19 and the run-up to the 2020 election, according to the researchers.

“As consumers continue to see ads that contain false claims and are intentionally designed to use their emotions to manipulate them, it’s important for them to have cool heads and understand the motives behind them,” said Vargo.

For the study, Vargo and assistant professor of advertising Toby Hopp looked at 2,517 Facebook and Instagram ads downloaded from the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence website. The committee made the ads publicly available in 2018 after concluding that the IRA had been creating fake U.S. personas, setting up fake social media pages, and using targeted paid advertising to “sow discord” among U.S. residents.

Using computational tools and manual coding, Vargo and Hopp analyzed every ad, looking for inflammatory, obscene, or threatening words and language hostile to a particular group’s ethnic, religious, or sexual identity. They also looked at which groups each ad targeted, how many clicks the ad got, and how much the IRA paid.

Collectively, the IRA spent about $75,000 to generate about 40.5 million impressions with about 3.7 million users clicking on them — a clickthrough rate of 9.2 percent, according to the study’s findings.

A typical digital ad has a clickthrough rate of between .9 percent and 1.8 percent, the researchers noted.

While ads using blatantly racist language didn’t do well, those using cuss words and inflammatory words (like “sissy,” “idiot,” “psychopath” and “terrorist”) or posing a potential threat did, according to the study’s findings.

Ads that evoked fear and anger did the best, the researchers discovered.

One IRA advertisement targeting users with an interest in the Black Lives Matter movement stated: “They killed an unarmed guy again! We MUST make the cops stop thinking that they are above the law!” Another shouted: “White supremacists are planning to raise the racist flag again!”

Meanwhile, ads targeting people who sympathized with white conservative groups read “Take care of our vets; not illegals” or joked “If you voted for Obama: We don’t want your business because you are too stupid to own a firearm.”

Only 110 out of 2,000 ads mentioned Donald Trump, the analysis revealed.

“This wasn’t about electing one candidate or another,” said Vargo. “It was essentially a make-Americans-hate-each-other campaign.”

The ads were often unsophisticated, with spelling or grammatical errors and poorly photoshopped images. Yet at only a few cents to distribute, the IRA got an impressive rate of return, Vargo said.

“I was shocked at how effective these appeals were,” he said.

The researchers warn that they have no doubt the Russian troll farms are still at it.

According to some news reports, Russian trolls are already engaged in disinformation campaigns around COVID-19, they noted.

“I think with any major story, you are going to see this kind of disinformation circulated,” said Hopp. “There are bad actors out there who have goals that are counter to the aspirational goals of American democracy, and there are plenty of opportunities for them to take advantage of the current structure of social media.”

The researchers say that better monitoring, via both machine algorithms and human reviewers, could help stem the tide of disinformation.

“We as a society need to start seriously talking about what role the platforms and government should play in times like the 2020 election or during COVID-19 when we have a compelling need for high-quality, accurate information to be distributed,” said Hopp.

Source: University of Colorado 
Photo: This fake ad, placed by the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency in 2016, was targeted toward white conservatives. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Vargo/CU Boulder.

Fake Facebook Ads Adeptly Used Fear and Anger To Divide Americans

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Fake Facebook Ads Adeptly Used Fear and Anger To Divide Americans. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Mar 2020 (Originally: 28 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Mar 2020
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