If you saw ads on your Facebook feed showing an alternate reality where France and Germany were governed by Sharia law ahead of the 2016 elections, you’re not alone.
Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOGL) helped advertising company Harris Media run the campaigns for their client, Secure America Now—a conservative, nonprofit advocacy group whose campaign “included a mix of anti-Hillary Clinton and anti-Islam messages,” notes Bloomberg.
According to Bloomberg’s account, Facebook and Google directly collaborated on the campaign, helping “target the ads to more efficiently reach the audiences.” Not only did the two tech giants compete for “millions in ad dollars,” but they also “worked closely” with the group on their ads throughout the 2016 election.
Voters in swing states saw a range of ads, including the faux tourism video that depicted French students being trained to fight for the caliphate, and the Mona Lisa covered in a burqa. Another ad linked Nevada Democratic Senate nominee Catherine Cortez Masto to terrorism, calling on viewers to “stop support of terrorism. Vote against Catherine Cortez Mastro,” and asking them to “vote to protect Nevada.”
Ads were optimized to target specific groups of people that they felt “could be swayed by the anti-refugee message.” And Facebook reportedly used its collaboration with Secure America Now as an opportunity to test new technology as well. Internal reports acquired by Bloomberg show that the ads were viewed millions of times on Facebook and Google.
This case distinguishes itself from that of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election in that Google and Facebook directly assisted Secure America Now in its targeting of audiences. Of course, the two companies have worked with political groups on their advertising strategies in the past, but the extent and secretive nature of their assistance in this case is uncommon. And the content of the ads themselves reportedly left some Harris employees feeling “uneasy.”
Google and Facebook were not immediately available for comment.