Accessibility links

Breaking News

FBI Turning to Social Media to Track Traitors

An image from an FBI social media video posted to Twitter on Feb. 24, 2023.

If you logged onto social media over the past few months, you may have seen it – a video of the Russian Embassy on a gray, overcast day in Washington with the sounds of passing cars and buses in the background.

A man's voice asks in English, "Do you want to change your future?" Russian subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen and the narrator makes note of the first anniversary of "Russia's further invasion of Ukraine."

As somber music begins to play, the camera pans to the left and takes the viewer down Wisconsin Avenue, to the Adams Morgan Metro station and on through Washington, ending at FBI headquarters, a few blocks from the White House.

"The FBI values you. The FBI can help you," FBI Assistant Director Alan Koehler says as the video wraps up, Russian subtitles still appearing on the screen. "But only you have the power to take the first step."

The video, put out by the FBI's Washington Field Office, first appeared as a posting on the field office's Twitter account on February 24. Another five versions started the same day as paid advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, costing the bureau an estimated $5,500 to $6,500.

That money may seem like a pittance for a government agency with an annual budget of more than $10 billion, but it was not the first nor the last time the FBI spent money to court Russian officials.

The video is part of an expansive, long-running campaign by the FBI to use social media advertisements to recruit disgruntled Russian officials stationed across the United States and beyond, in part to sniff out Americans who have betrayed their country in order to aid Moscow.

A VOA analysis finds the FBI has paid tens of thousands of dollars, at minimum, to multiple platforms for social media ads targeting Russian officials, with the pace of such ad buys increasing just before and then after Moscow launched its latest invasion of Ukraine.

Multiple former U.S. counterintelligence officials who spoke to VOA about the FBI's efforts described the advertising as money well spent.

The FBI wants to find well-placed Russian officials who can "help identify where American spies may be," said Douglas London, a three-decade veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service.

"It seeks Russian agents to catch and convict American spies and Russian illegals," he told VOA, describing the mission as a part of the bureau's DNA.

Another veteran CIA official, Jim Olson, agreed, telling VOA the goal of the FBI's outreach to Russian officials is unmistakable.

"I call that hanging out the shingle," said Olson, a former counterintelligence chief.

"For every American traitor, every American spy, there are members of that intelligence service who know the identity of that American or know enough about what the production is to give us a lead in doing the identification," Olson said.

'All available tools'

The FBI declined to comment directly on its decision to spend several thousand dollars to run the two-minute-long video as an ad on Facebook and Instagram, simply saying it "uses a variety of means" to gather intelligence.

"The FBI will evaluate all available tools to protect the national security interests of the United States," the FBI's Washington Field Office told VOA in an email. "And we will use all legal means available to locate individuals with information that can help protect the United States from threats to our national security."

Some of the FBI's earlier forays into social media advertising did get some public attention, first in October 2019 and then again in March of last year.

However, a review of publicly available data indicates the bureau's use of social media for counterintelligence is more expansive than previously understood.

According to data in the Meta Ad Library, which contains information on Facebook and Instagram ads dating back to May 2018, the FBI and its field offices have so far spent just under $40,000 on ads targeting Russian speakers, generating as many as 6.9 million views.

While most of the ads targeted specific locations, like Washington and New York, some were seen much further afield, getting views across much of the United States and even in countries like Spain, Poland, Nigeria, France and Croatia.

It would also appear the FBI's paid ads ran on platforms other than Meta.

Nicholas Murphy, a 20-year-old second-year student at Georgetown University in Washington, was in his dorm room last March searching for news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine when he saw an ad on YouTube, the video-sharing social media platform owned by Google.

"[It was] just text with a kind of a strange like background to it … all in Russian," said Murphy, a Park City, Utah, native who does not speak Russian and who used a translator app to decipher the ad.

"At the time I didn't know if it was coming from the Russian government, if it was coming from our government, if it was kind of propaganda, if it was fake," Murphy told VOA. "It conjured up a lot of thoughts about Russian influence over Facebook ads in the [2016 U.S.] election."

Murphy said he came across the ad another two to three times over the ensuing weeks. And, it turned out, he was not alone. A handful of other students were also starting to see some of the ads, including a couple of classmates in a Russian literature class.

Just how many ads the FBI paid to run on YouTube, or via Google, is unclear.

A search of Google's recently launched Ad Transparency Center shows the FBI paid to run the Russian language version of its two-minute-long video most recently on April 28. But the database only shows information for the past 30 days and Google says it does not share information on advertiser spending.

It is also unclear whether the FBI paid to run any ads on Twitter in addition to pushing out information through its own Twitter accounts. Twitter responded to an email from VOA requesting information with its now standard poop emoji.

The FBI itself refused to provide details regarding the scope of its social media advertising efforts although the Washington Field Office did acknowledge to VOA via email that it uses "various social media platforms."

The Washington Field Office also defended its use of social media advertising despite indications that the ads themselves, like the one seen by Georgetown University student Nicholas Murphy, do not always reach the intended audience.

"The FBI views these efforts as productive and cost effective," the FBI's Washington Field Office told VOA. The office declined to be more specific about whether any spies have been identified as a result of the ads.

"Russia has long been a counterintelligence threat to the U.S. and the FBI will continue to adapt our investigative and outreach techniques to counter that threat and others," it said. "We will use all legal means available to locate individuals with information that can help protect the United States from threats to our national security."

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to calls or emails from VOA seeking comment about the FBI's use of social media advertisements to target Russian officials in the U.S. But Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov did respond to a March 2022 article by The Washington Post about FBI efforts to send ads to cell phones outside the Russian Embassy in Washington.

"Attempts to sow confusion and organize desertion among the staff of @RusEmbUSA are ridiculous," Antonov was quoted as saying in a tweet by the embassy's Twitter account.

Some former U.S. counterintelligence officials, though, argue Russia has reason to be worried.

"I think people will come out of the woodwork," said Olson, the former CIA counterintelligence chief.

FBI agents "see what we all see, and that is that there must be a subset of Russian intelligence officers, SVR officers, GRU officers, who are disillusioned by what's going on," he told VOA.

"I think some good Russians are embarrassed, shocked, ashamed of what Putin is doing in Ukraine, killing brother and sister Slavs. And I think that there will be people who would like to strike back against that."

London, the longtime CIA Clandestine Services official and author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, likewise believes the FBI's persistent efforts to reach disgruntled Russians on social media will pay off.

"Generally, the Russians who have worked with us have done so out of patriotism … they were upset with the government," he said.

And the Russian officials that the FBI hopes to reach just need a bit of nudge.

"They're aiming this at Russians who are already there mentally but just haven't crossed," London said, adding it is not a coincidence that many of the FBI ads show Russians exactly how to get in touch, whether via encrypted communication apps like Signal or by walking right up to the bureau's front door.

"They're not doing metaphors here," he said. "They don't want anything subject to interpretation."

Even the language used by the FBI appears to be designed to build trust.

"It's very much not native," according to Bradley Gorski, with Georgetown University's Department of Slavic Languages.

But given the overall quality of the language in the ads, Gorski said it is quite possible all of it is intentional.

"It might be a canny strategy on their part," he said of the FBI. "If they are reaching out to Russian speakers and want to both communicate with them but let them know who is communicating with them is not a Russian speaker, but is a sort of American doing their best, then this kind of outreach with a little bit stilted, though correct, Russian might communicate that actually better than fully native sort of fluent speech."

Whether the FBI's spending on social media advertisements is achieving the desired results is hard to gauge. Public metrics such those provided by social media companies like Meta can give a sense of how many people are seeing the ads, and where they are, but do not shed much light on who is ultimately interacting with the ads to the point of a response.

When pressed, FBI officials tell VOA only that the bureau views the ad campaigns as productive.

Others agree.

"Relative to the hardcore military aid the U.S. has provided, that's a small chunk of change," said Jason Blazakis, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, a global intelligence firm.

And Blazakis, who also directs the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, thinks the FBI's social media ads might be having an impact even if few Russian officials ever come forward with information.

"Part of it is also messaging to the broader Russian public," he told VOA, pointing to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "There is this influence operational component to it, part of this PR [public relations] battle that is happening on the periphery of the conflict."