Facebook to give ads to Congress in Russia inquiry

Comes amid growing public pressure to reveal more
Hillary Clinton campaigns in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Oct. 28, 2016.
Hillary Clinton campaigns in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Oct. 28, 2016.

WASHINGTON — Under growing pressure from Congress and the public to reveal more about the spread of covert Russian propaganda on Facebook, the company said Thursday that it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to congressional committees investigating the Kremlin’s influence operation during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity,” Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said on Facebook Live, the company’s video service. He added that he did not want anyone “to use our tools to undermine democracy.”

“That’s not what we stand for,” he said.

The announcement that Facebook would share the ads with the Senate and House intelligence committees came after the social network spent two weeks on the defensive. The company faced calls for greater transparency about 470 Russia-linked accounts — in which fictional people posed as U.S. activists — which were taken down after they promoted inflammatory messages on divisive issues. Facebook previously angered congressional officials by showing only a sample of the ads, some of which attacked Hillary Clinton or praised President Donald Trump.

Facebook’s admission Sept. 6 that Russian agents covertly bought ads on the site during the 2016 campaign has brought intense scrutiny on the social network and on Twitter, entangling both companies in the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Both companies have turned over detailed data to Mueller.

The disclosure of the ads also raised the possibility of future regulation of political advertising on social media. This week, congressional Democrats asked the Federal Election Commission to advise on ways to prevent illicit foreign influence on U.S. elections via social media, including possible new laws or regulations.

Facebook’s actions underscored how far it has strayed from being a mere technology company and how it is confronting the unintended consequences of the tools it provides to reach the more than 2 billion people who use the site regularly. The company became more proactive in deflecting criticism this week, with its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, describing on Wednesday the steps Facebook would take to strengthen its ad system so that it could not be misused to target racists.

On Thursday, in a move clearly intended to pre-empt government intervention, Zuckerberg outlined the list of actions Facebook planned to take in the coming weeks to make political advertising more transparent. He said each ad would show which Facebook Page — a kind of account required for businesses to create an ad — had paid for the ad, although that would not necessarily identify the people behind the Facebook Page. In addition, Facebook plans to invest more heavily in its security teams, expand its coordination with global election commissions and work closely with other tech companies to share threat information as it arises.

In his seven-minute talk from Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Zuckerberg said there might be additional fake accounts linked to Russia or other countries. “We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states,” he said.

Zuckerberg, 33, noted that Thursday was his first day back from parental leave after the birth of a daughter. But despite that folksy touch, he had the look of an improbably young leader addressing his people at a moment of crisis.

With his talk of “the democratic process,” “foreign actors,” and “election integrity” — mentioning Germany’s elections this weekend in particular — Zuckerberg reinforced Facebook’s status as a transnational global behemoth whose power reaches into every corner of contemporary life.

“We are in a new world,” he said. “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”

Despite Russia’s stealth attack, Zuckerberg argued that Facebook remained a force for good in democracy, promoting billions of online discussions, linking voters to candidates and helping 2 million Americans register to vote. He said that positive role was “100 or 1,000 times bigger” than the illicit activity.

Twitter, which has kept a low profile since Facebook’s disclosure of the Russian intrusion, has announced that it will brief the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday in private.

In a statement, Twitter did not address illicit Russian activity on its platform but said it “deeply respects the integrity of the election process, a cornerstone of all democracies” and vowed to “continue to strengthen our platform against bots and other forms of manipulation.”

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, praised Facebook’s announcement but said he still believed regulation was needed to ensure that voters know more about who is behind ads on social media.

“This is a good first step,” he said. “I’m disappointed it’s taken 10 months of raising this issue before they’ve become much more transparent.”

Warner said he believed the 3,000 ads, which the committees had not yet received, should be made public with protections for the privacy of any innocent people whose names may be in the material.

Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., circulated a letter inviting colleagues to co-sponsor a bill that would require greater transparency for online political ads, according to a copy of the letter seen by The New York Times.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is chairman of the intelligence panel, said he had no comment Thursday night.

The Times reported this month that Russian intelligence appeared to have been behind an infestation of Twitter with automated accounts, called bots, that spread messages against Clinton last year. Cybersecurity company FireEye identified what it called “warlists” of hundreds of fake accounts that fired off identical political messages.

The Times also found Facebook accounts that appeared to have been created by ordinary Americans but were actually concocted by Russian agents. Facebook, which had said as recently as July that it had found no evidence of fraudulent Russian ad purchases, reversed itself this month and said it had removed 470 profiles and pages that it said were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin.

Facebook found $100,000 of ad purchases that were linked to the fake pages — designed to look like the pages of Americans animated by particular issues — that spread inflammatory messages about immigration, guns and other topics, and that derided Clinton and supported Trump. Facebook shut the accounts down in recent weeks but declined to name or describe them publicly, saying federal law prohibited it from making customer communications public.

The illicit Russian exploitation of social media fits squarely into Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation, and the companies said they had fully cooperated with his requests for detailed data.

One question for Mueller is certain to be whether the Russian Facebook advertising — and any other promotions using Twitter or other services — showed evidence of the kind of sophisticated targeting that might indicate that Americans had provided assistance. Facebook has said some of the ads were targeted to particular geographic areas but has not given details.

For the social media companies, the furor over Russia’s interference raises a possibility that they deeply fear: government regulation. Political ads on social media have thus far escaped the rules that require, for instance, the familiar “I approve this message” tagline on TV spots.

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