Russia’s Fake Facebook Ads Targeted Christians During 2016 election

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Russian operatives created a popular Facebook page to target conservative Christians with patriotic, Jesus-filled memes as a part of a broad social media campaign to stir dissension among Americans during the 2016 election.

Congressional hearings this week revealed new details about the Russian posts and the scope of their reach, now believed to be up to 126 million users (which is over half of American adults on Facebook). The illicit campaign specifically targeted conservative Christians, as well as other social groups like Muslims, LGBT individuals, and veterans.

“Army of Jesus” was among 470 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. Its profile picture showed a light-skinned, brown-haired Jesus wearing a garment printed with the American flag.

According to one post presented by Senator Mark Warner—depicting a standoff between a glowing figure of Jesus Christ and Hillary Clinton dressed as the devil—the fake Christian account had over 217,000 likes. (For comparison, that’s more Facebook likes than some established, politically conservative evangelical media outlets, such as World or Charisma magazines.)

Posts on the Army of Jesus page appealed to conservative Christians who opposed Clinton, inviting them to “like if you want Jesus to win!”

“I suspect some of this microtargeting only hardened voting preferences that pre-existed; these ads would only resonate with people who already had their minds made up,” said Kevin den Dulk, political science professor at Calvin College. “This doesn’t make the ads any less concerning. They are blasphemous, manipulative, and perhaps marginally deepened American polarization.”

The interactivity and shareability of these posts, before they were removed from Facebook for using fake identities, led to their widespread reach. Though the Russian agency also used Army of Jesus and other accounts to launch sponsored posts, a form of paid advertising, only about 11.4 million saw the ads, compared to ten times as many who saw them organically, reported The Washington Post.

The Daily Beast, through uncovering Google archives and a related Instagram feed for the Army of Jesus page, describedother images shared through the fake account:

Many, and perhaps the majority, of the images are fairly standard pieces of Christian messaging, such as a picture of people holding hands with the text, “my prayer is for all Christians to stand as one army of Jesus,” or “a bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.”

But, as Warner noted, Army of Jesus started to post much more explicitly political content. “This is another example of how people are lured in,” Warner said during the hearing.

Several posts tugged at political or theological divides. “Defend Christian faith, stop atheist propaganda,” reads one image of a young girl grasping a framed picture of Jesus on the cross. “I did this because all lives matter,” reads another post, next to a picture of Jesus carrying the cross, clearly poking at political tensions over police brutality.

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Source: Christianity Today