Facebook to turn over Russia-linked ads to US Congress

Social media giant under pressure to reveal more about spread of covert propaganda

Facebook said it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to the US Senate and House intelligence committees. Photograph: Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

Facebook said it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to the US Senate and House intelligence committees. Photograph: Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

 

Under growing pressure from the United States Congress and the US public to reveal more about the spread of covert Russian propaganda on Facebook, the company said on Thursday that it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to the Senate and House intelligence committees. The two panels are investigating the Kremlin’s influence operation on the 2016 presidential election.

The high-profile announcement came after Facebook spent two weeks on the defensive amid calls for greater transparency about 470 Russia-linked accounts the company took down after they had promoted inflammatory messages on divisive issues. Facebook had previously shown congressional staffers a sample of the ads, some of which attacked Hillary Clinton or praised Donald Trump, but had not shared the entire collection.

Facebook’s admission on September 6th that Russian agents covertly bought ads on the site during last year’s presidential campaign has brought intense scrutiny on the social network, as well as Twitter, entangling both companies in the investigation by Robert S Mueller, the special counsel, and raising the possibility of future regulation of political advertising on their platforms.

Possible new laws

Congressional Democrats this week asked the federal election commission (FEC) to advise on ways to prevent foreign influence on US elections, including possible new laws or regulations. Twitter, which has kept a low profile since Facebook’s disclosure of the Russian intrusion, said it would brief the Senate Intelligence Committee next Wednesday behind closed doors. 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”.

Congressman John Sarbanes, a Democrat and chairman of a group called the Democracy Reform Task Force which is tracking the Russian interference, said it was urgently necessary to understand Russia’s actions and prevent a repeat in future campaigns. “We’re telling the FEC, let’s get going on this, because the 2018 election is bearing down on us,” he said. “I think it’s fair to expect the companies to have a higher level of vigilance and catch this stuff on the front end, instead of after the fact.”

The New York 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 Hillary Clinton last year. Cybersecurity company FireEye identified what it called “warlists” of hundreds of fake accounts that fired off identical political messages.

The newspaper 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 the 470 profiles and pages, which it said were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with Kremlin ties. – (New York Times Service)