How Russian Election Hackers Won with Facebook Ads

“How did they know how to target the audience with such exquisite specificity?”, Senator Mark Warner wonders. While revelations that Facebook enables advertisers to reach “Jew Haters” make headlines, no serious or effective marketer uses those tactics, and neither did the Russians. Anyone can target Facebook Ads like a Russian hacker – how did they do it?

1. Ad Approval Roulette

Much criticism has been leveled at Facebook for approving these ads. Facebook uses a combination of automated algorithms and human approval processes to approve ads. One of the Ads from the Russia-based page, Secured Borders, that ran these Ads says Dora the Explorer knows it’s easy to cross the U.S. Border because “if you get caught, they’d just send you back in your country so you can try again”. Facebook Ads are like that, but even easier. We’ve all done it with the cable company. If you don’t get the answer you want, call back and try another rep. Facebook Ads work the same way. Usually, if you try enough times, you’ll find a rep who will approve your ad. The Russian content farms can afford to be patient.

One of the Facebook Ads created by Russia-based “troll farm” site, Secured Borders


Not all of these Facebook employees are even based in the U.S., so if a message is not explicitly racist, the Russians keep trying until they find a rep that isn’t dialed into U.S. politics, culture, and racial tensions. These employees are looking at dozens of Ads every hour, ranging from ads for shoes, software companies, sports teams, and all sorts of websites, some legit and some not. With a tiny measure of subtlety, it’s not surprising they were able to get Ads approved.

2. The Legend of the 20% Text Rule

Another Ad created by Secured Borders

Until 2016, Facebook strictly enforced a policy that Ads couldn’t be more than 20% text. Now, they’ll approve the Ad, but warn that they might not show it to as many people, but that’s all based on how people respond to your Ad. If an Ad is getting tons of likes and comments because the content is resonating with the targeted audience, the Ad will thrive. If the Ad doesn’t thrive, it won’t reach very many people, and the Russians cut it off without spending much money.

3. Targeting Like a Sniper

Facebook’s Ad targeting options would blow your mind with their sophistication, but consider a few low-hanging options. You can advertise to people who “Like” your page. “Secured Borders” had at least 134,000 fans. You can market to people in specific cities, counties, states. You can market to people who have visited your website, or based on a list of email addresses you provide. On top of all of that, you can market to a “Lookalike” Audience of people who Facebook believes are statistically similar to you.

So if you’re a Russian “Troll Farm” you start by making tons of posts about secure borders and against immigration, some of it goes viral and gains fans. From there, it’s trivially easy to target, for example, people in “swing states” who don’t live in major cities who are most similar to people who already Like the Secured Borders page. It’s an easy recipe for success. The list of swing states is well known. You know that cities aren’t the best place to push anti-immigration ads, and you know you’re hitting an audience that is a LOT like people who are already fired up. It works, it’s easy, it creates a flywheel of success that increases in momentum very inexpensively, and you run the same pattern across dozens or even hundreds of other pages.

What’s Next?

In the days and weeks ahead, we’ll see more and more of these Ads released, which will give us more insight into what other tactics were used. The initial releases have focused on the “Secured Borders” group, but we’ll soon see that these groups are a case study in focus. There will be groups focused in on almost every imaginable hot-button issue – immigration, jobs, terrorism, and the candidates.

For Media Inquiries about Russian Facebook Advertising Strategy around the U.S. Presidential Election and other Advanced Digital Marketing Tactics and Measurement, please contact Rob Kischuk at 404.663.9945,, or @rkischuk / @GetConverge