It reads like a Russian spy novel. At the center of the plot is a New Jersey couple killed in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, their horse farm -- the “Blue Crest Riding Center" -- and a start-up news site here in Atlanta.
Soon after Richard and Elizabeth Everett were killed, their horse farm closed and the Facebook page for the "Blue Crest Riding Center" went dormant. And then shortly before the November Presidential election, the Facebook account was back online with paid postings, according to Seth Persily, editor of “Policulous.”
Persily, who’s also a lawyer and data mining expert, has made it his mission to find examples of the ads allegedly placed by Russian operatives. He hit the jackpot on a site called "Big Big Ads,” a repository of millions of ads that have run on the Facebook platform.
Policulous said it found 15 ads tied to the Blue Crest Riding Center, with all of them carrying Russian fingerprints. One example, says Persily, is an ad featuring actor Denzel Washington showing support for President Trump and featuring poor grammar.
"You have an attempt at a semi-colon, instead it's a dash and a comma. You have poor spelling, they were unable to spell Breitbart properly. And the link goes to a website that does not even exist,” he told CBS46.
Persily said the ads followed a pre and post-election pattern initially supporting then presidential candidate Donald Trump and then mimicking his messaging using controversial issues involving foreign countries.
Another example, said Persily, is an ad focusing on a civil war unfolding in Sweden.
"We know that's fake news. What's even more interesting is that this picture is not even of a riot in Sweden. It was taken from the Russian Times and it's just a regular fire,” he said.
Persily said it was a sophisticated operation with upwards of more than 100 people.
“They followed the issues very closely. They were targeting specific demographics, specific age ranges with specific ads,” he said.
Former Atlanta FBI Special Agent Vic Hartman said there’s enough information here to warrant a criminal investigation.
“If they’re not already investigating, they will be tomorrow morning,” Hartman said.
Hartman, also a lawyer and "certified fraud examiner," said what CBS46 and Policulous have uncovered is a game changer. Up until now, Hartman said the FBI has been investigating Russian meddling through violations of Federal election laws. Now, he said, it could be computer hacking, credit card and wire fraud laws with much sharper teeth.
“The facts are relatively simple,” Hartman told CBS46. “The account has been hacked and it was Russian propaganda put on there, and it was paid for by a credit card that may or may not be stolen. That right there is predication, or enough information for the FBI to open an investigation and then get a search warrant and serve it on Facebook.”
Persily agreed and said Facebook should be held accountable.
"Facebook knows what happened here. They have copies of the receipts. They collected payments for these ads and they have a duty to the public to disclose it,” he said.
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