The latest excitement in the Trump-Russia investigation is a set of Facebook ads linked to Russia, about 3,000 in all, that some of the president's adversaries hope will prove the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election.
"A number of Russian-liked Facebook ads specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Donald Trump's victory last November," CNN reported on Wednesday, attributing the information to four sources "with direct knowledge of the situation."
"Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal," CNN continued, attributing that information to two of the sources.
In addition, CNN reported, the ads seemed tailor-made for the Trump campaign. "The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said," CNN noted, suggesting that anti-Muslim content could have been designed to complement candidate Trump's message. "The ads were aimed at suppressing the votes and sowing discontent among the electorate, the sources said."
Put aside whether Michigan and Wisconsin were in fact "crucial" to Trump's victory. (He would still have won the presidency even if he had lost both.) The theory is that Russians could not have pulled off such "highly sophisticated" targeting by themselves and therefore may have had help from the Trump campaign or its associates.
But is that the whole story? Not according to a government official familiar with the Facebook ads, who offers a strikingly different assessment. What follows is from the official and from public statements by Facebook itself:
1) Of the group of 3,000 ads turned over to Congress by Facebook, a majority of the impressions came after the election, not before. Indeed, in a news release Monday, Facebook said 56 percent of the ads' impressions came after the 2016 vote.
2) Twenty-five percent of the ads were never seen by anybody. (Facebook also revealed that Monday.)
3) Most of the ads, which Facebook estimates were seen by a total of 10 million people in the United States, never mentioned the election or any candidate. "The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn't specifically reference the U.S. presidential election, voting or a particular candidate," Facebook said in a Sept. 6 news release.
4) A relatively small number of the ads -- again, about 25 percent -- were geographically targeted. (Facebook also revealed that on September 6.)
5) The ads that were geographically targeted were all over the map. "Of those that were targeted, numerous other locales besides Michigan and Wisconsin, including non-battleground states like Texas, were targeted," the government official familiar with the ads said, via email.
6) Very few ads specifically targeted Wisconsin or Michigan. "Of the hundreds of pre-election ads with one or more impressions, less than a dozen ads targeted Michigan and Wisconsin combined," the official said.
7) By and large, the ads targeting Michigan and Wisconsin did not run in the general election. "Nearly all of these Michigan and Wisconsin ads ran in 2015 and also ran in other states," the official said.
8) The Michigan and Wisconsin ads were not widely seen. "The majority of these Wisconsin and Michigan ads had less than 1,000 impressions," the official said.
9) The Michigan and Wisconsin ads (like those everywhere else) were low-budget. "The buy for the majority of these Michigan and Wisconsin ads (paid in rubles) was equivalent to approximately $10," the official said.
10) The ads just weren't very good. The language used in some of the ads "clearly shows the ad writer was not a native English speaker," the official said. In addition, the set of ads turned over by Facebook also contained "clickbait-type ads that had nothing to do with politics." And in general, the official's view is that the ads simply were not terribly sophisticated, contrary to how they have been portrayed.
None of this proves anything about the Facebook part of the Trump Russia affair. It doesn't prove there was no collusion, and it certainly doesn't prove there was. But it does suggest this particular set of ads might not be a very big deal.
In a news conference Wednesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, did not play up the Facebook angle. "I think if you look from 10,000 feet, the subject matter of the ads was -- seems to have been to create chaos in every group that they could possibly identify in America," Burr said.
Burr elaborated a bit, adding, "If we used solely the social media that we have seen, there's no way that you can look at that and say that that was to help the right side of the ideological chart and not the left. Or vice versa. They were indiscriminate."
As far as any allegations that the ads show collusion, Burr said he would not answer "until we've completed the investigation."
Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's Democratic vice-chairman, was similarly circumspect. "I believe, and I think you will see, that there will be more forensics done by these companies," Warner said. "I think they've got some more work to do."
Burr noted that he has no objection to Facebook releasing the ads publicly. Certainly doing so would go a long way toward clearing up the public's understanding of the issue. Like everything else in the Trump Russia affair, people need to know what happened.