Facebook Will Supply Congressional Committees with Ads Bought by Russian Company

The move is a reversal for Facebook, which previously only showed staffers on Capital Hill snippets of the ads before taking them back, citing user privacy.

by David S. Cloud and David Pierson, Tribune Washington Bureau / September 22, 2017
An illustration of Facebook logo, on May 9, 2016. The discovery that a Russian company bought election-related Facebook ads in last year's presidential race opens new avenues for Justice Department and congressional investigators. Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Sipa USA

(TNS) — WASHINGTON — Responding to mounting pressure to reveal details about Russian-paid propaganda on its platform, Facebook said it would share more than 3,000 ads linked to Russia with congressional panels investigating foreign meddling in the 2016 election.

The move announced Thursday is a reversal for Facebook, which previously only showed staffers on Capital Hill snippets of the ads before taking them back, citing user privacy. Facebook had given the ads and other information to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is also looking into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. But the company has been facing growing calls to assist congressional investigators after first publicly acknowledging on Sept. 6 that it had accepted at least $100,000 in Russia-linked ads.

“We believe it is vitally important that government authorities have the information they need to deliver to the public a full assessment of what happened in the 2016 election,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a blog post Thursday.

Facebook co-founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg discussed the disclosure during a live broadcast in which he also pledged to strengthen the company’s ad review process and instill more transparency in political advertising on his platform.

“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for,” Zuckerberg said. “The integrity of our elections is fundamental to democracy around the world.”

Zuckerberg says he expects the government to publish findings about the Russian ads, which were aimed at exacerbating divisions on social issues like race, guns and immigration during the U.S. presidential campaign season.

The ads were purchased by 470 fake accounts traced back to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm known for using troll accounts to post on news sites.

Facebook executives briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month on the Russia-linked ads. But Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, and other lawmakers had criticized the company for refusing to turn over the materials that it had given to Mueller.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the Facebook material “should help us better understand what happened, beyond the preliminary briefings we already received.”

He added, “It will be important for the committee to scrutinize how rigorous Facebook’s internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did to discover the Russian sponsored advertisements and what else may yet be uncovered.”

Schiff made clear that Facebook is not the only company that investigators expect to hear from.

“As we continue our investigation to get to the bottom of Russia’s multifaceted attack on our democratic process,” he said, “I believe it will be necessary to hear directly from Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as others in the tech sector, including in open hearings that will inform the American public.”

No evidence has emerged publicly to indicate there was coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

But the use of social media was part of a broad effort by the Kremlin to influence the presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies said in a January report. It concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the campaign to help Trump and damage Hillary Clinton.

The intelligence report found that Russian social media users had posted messages hostile to Clinton. But the impact of the Facebook ads on the election remains unclear, current and former officials said.

“The Russians have long considered information operations like this to be part of their foreign policy tool box,” said J. Michael Daniel, a former senior cybersecurity official in the Obama administration. “But they’re not necessarily seeking to elect an individual; they’re seeking to sow division to sow distrust.”

Most of the ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were bought online, without any contact between Facebook and the buyers, Zuckerberg said. The buys totaled about $100,000 and only a quarter were geographically targeted to the U.S.

Facebook’s move comes at a time when lawmakers and the public are debating whether it’s necessary to rein in the growing power and influence of America’s largest technology companies.

“Governments have lost patience with platforms that look more like enablers than innovators to regulators these days, which suggests more regulation on the horizon,” said Albert Gidari, of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet have a combined market capitalization of $3 trillion and an even greater market dominance over consumer data. Facebook’s and Google’s chokehold on information is cited as one of the reasons the so-called fake news phenomenon was able to fester.

Unlike newspapers and TV networks, which must disclose how much they charge for political ads as well as who paid for them, platforms like Facebook and Twitter don’t have to share data and aren’t liable for what their users post online.

That’s thanks to two federal laws that were introduced years before anyone knew what a like, share or a tweet was. The first, the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, restricts government access to private digital communications. The other, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, absolves internet companies from most things its users do on their platforms.

However, a bill introduced in the Senate in August, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, is seen as a proxy battle to undo some of the protections tech companies enjoy under Section 230. The law, which would target sex trafficking online, could set a precedent for expanding criminal liability among the platforms.

Tech companies have been quietly resisting the bill, but Facebook’s decision to make concessions Thursday may suggest a willingness to go beyond what the law requires to placate its critics.

The company has faced backlash from observers who say it’s unfair that Facebook doesn’t have to play by the same rules as traditional publishers.

Zuckerberg said ad buyers will now have to disclose who they are and provide other ads they’re sharing to audiences on Facebook.

He said the company was continuing to investigate “what happened on Facebook” during the election, looking at other “foreign actors,” including “other Russian groups.”

“We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government,” he said.

But Facebook executives are also nervous that the company’s cooperation with the government could lead to a backlash, either from users who want the site to remain free from government intrusion or from pro-Russian hackers.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system,” Zuckerberg said. “We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to.”

©2017 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.