Thursday Facebook announced that after “an extensive legal and policy review” the company would be turning over roughly 3,000 ads connected to Russian accounts to congressional investigators. The company’s General Counsel made the announcement in a Facebook post:
Two weeks ago, we announced we had found more than 3,000 ads addressing social and political issues that ran in the US between 2015 and 2017 and that appear to have come from accounts associated with a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency. We subsequently made clear that we are providing information related to those ads, including the ad content itself, to the Special Counsel investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Since then, some people have asked why we aren’t sharing the content of the ads more broadly.
After an extensive legal and policy review, today we are announcing that we will also share these ads with congressional investigators. 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.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also provided a live update in which he explained the decision and what the company planned to do about future attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. He said the amount of material tied to Russia is still small but the company will keep investigating:
I wish I could tell you we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that wouldn’t be realistic. There will always be bad people in the world, and we can’t prevent all governments from all interference. But we can make it harder. We can make it a lot harder. And that’s what we’re going to do.
So today I want to share the steps we’re taking to protect election integrity and make sure that Facebook is a force for good in democracy. While the amount of problematic content we’ve found so far remains relatively small, any attempted interference is a serious issue…
We will continue our investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election. We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government. We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states, as well as organizations like the campaigns, to further our understanding of how they used our tools. These investigations will take some time, but we will continue our thorough review…
Going forward — and perhaps the most important step we’re taking — we’re going to make political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even congressionalhigher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.
Zuckerberg says that because the ads in question are now part of two ongoing investigations he’s going to leave it to the investigators to share the information. From Facebook’s previous announcement, here’s what we know so far about the ads:
- The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.
- Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.
- About one-quarter of these ads were geographically targeted, and of those, more ran in 2015 than 2016.
That sounds like the sort of thing Russia has been doing with its RT propaganda channel for years now. Zuckerberg may be unable to release the ads but Congress should do so. There’s no reason to let speculation run rampant for months. Release the ads so we can all see what Russia was doing and make a judgment about it.
Here’s the full video of Zuckerberg’s announcement: