Facebook's Disclosure About Russian Political Ads Sparks Debate on Transparency

By Deepa Seetharaman and Robert McMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

Facebook Inc.'s disclosure this week that Russian actors paid for divisive political ads on its platform is reigniting debate over the how much the social media giant is obligated to share data on its service.

Continue Reading Below

A Facebook blog post on Wednesday publicly acknowledged for the first time that Russians sought to manipulate public opinion in the U.S. through its platform. The company said it identified a total of 5,200 ads, costing $150,000, about hot-button social and political issues over a two-year period that included the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Most ads were paid for by accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian outfit that shares pro-Kremlin views online. Other ads came from accounts that Facebook detected were affiliated with Russia.

But the company's roughly 720-word post -- published after Facebook repeatedly said it had no evidence of such activity -- left unanswered a host of questions about the ads, including what they looked like, how many people they reached, and the identity of the fake accounts that bought them.

The report sparked criticism from researchers, some lawmakers and others who said Facebook and other social media firms need to be more forthcoming about how their platforms are used to spread propaganda. Facebook's analysis may not account for the full scope of Russian activity on the site, according to some critics, who also questioned why Facebook was only disclosing the ad activity now.

"Why are we learning this 10 months after the election?" said Daniel Kreiss, a media and communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a book about how technological changes shape politics. "They seemingly don't know what's going on," Mr. Kreiss added, of Facebook.

Facebook briefed Congressional staffers on the findings of its internal analysis. A company spokesman said it wouldn't share the ads purchased by Russian actors due to "federal law and the fact that investigations are ongoing with the relevant authorities."

Continue Reading Below

Nate Persily, a Stanford professor who studies election law, said the public should be able to see the ads Facebook uncovered.

"It doesn't seem to be a terribly chilling idea to say that we should be able to know how much money is being spent on election-related advertisements online, and we ought to be able to see what those advertisements were and who they were targeted to," he said.

Social media companies, particularly Facebook and Twitter Inc., have faced pressure since the 2016 election to crack down on misinformation and fake accounts, especially when linked to foreign governments.

Two days after the election, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said it was "pretty crazy idea" to think fake news on his platform influenced the election. He later reversed course.

Unlike broadcasters, Facebook, Twitter and other social media firms aren't obligated by law to disclose information about political advertising on their site. This makes it difficult to track how campaigns are using social media, a major source of news and information for American voters.

On Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the U.S. law may need to be updated to reflect social media's prominence.

"We're open to reviewing any specific Congressional proposal," the Facebook spokesman said.

Mr. Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate committee probing Moscow's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, said Twitter is expected to brief the panel soon on any Russian activity during the campaign.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who heads the Intelligence Committee, on Thursday declined to say if it would hold hearings on the question of foreign influence through Facebook and Twitter. He noted that existing law already prohibits foreign interference in U.S. elections, and said it would be up to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission to investigate any such activity.

"The question is, is there a regulator of social media?" he said.

On Thursday, the watchdog group Common Cause filed a federal election complaint over the Facebook ads and called on the Justice Department to investigate the matter in connection with Former FBI Director Robert Mueller III's probe into Russian election interference.

In April, Facebook published a report that said outside actors used fabricated news articles, misinformation and fake accounts to drive political conversation during the election.

In a footnote, Facebook said it found that less than 0.1% of posts related to "civic engagement" in the last four months of 2016 were the result of this manipulation. The company declined to say how many posts that represents.

Researchers at Oxford University have been trying to get their hands on this kind of data for the better part of a year as they have researched influence campaigns that affected the election. But, thus far, their efforts have been futile.

"Facebook keeps that data very much hidden," said Sam Woolley, an Oxford research associate.

While there has been much debate over Facebook other social network's algorithms and how they choose to promote posts, "there hasn't been as much outcry about the fact that these companies hold a tremendous amount of data on things that are exceptionally important, like the U.S. election, and don't share it with the American public," Mr. Woolley said.

Byron Tau contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 08, 2017 09:56 ET (13:56 GMT)