Facebook Hands Over 3K Russia-Linked Ads to Congress

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Facebook has provided Congress with details about the ads purchased by Russia-linked accounts during last year's campaign.

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"We are actively working with the US government on its ongoing investigations into Russian interference," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post today. "We have been investigating this for many months, and for a while we had found no evidence of fake accounts linked to Russia running ads. When we recently uncovered this activity, we provided that information to the special counsel. We also briefed Congress—and this morning I directed our team to provide the ads we've found to Congress as well."

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Facebook initially shared details about the ads with former FBI director Robert Mueller's special counsel, but did not provide Congress with as much data, citing privacy concerns.

The decision to provide Congress with that data came after "an extensive legal and policy review," Elliot Schrage, VP of Policy and Communications at Facebook, said in a separate post. But the social network decided to turn over the ads because "this is an extraordinary investigation — one that raises questions that go to the integrity of the US elections."

Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member on the Senate committee investigating Russian interference, tweeted that Facebook's decision is an "important & absolutely necessary first step. The American people deserve to know the truth about Russia's interference in the 2016 election."

Facebook earlier this month said 470 "inauthentic" accounts and Pages that "likely operated out of Russia" spent approximately $100,000 between June 2015 and May 2017 on 3,000 Facebook ads. Those ads were focused 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."

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Facebook's investigation can only dig so deep, Schrage continued. To really find out what happened in the 2016 election requires "an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries," he said.

"We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government," Zuckerberg said. "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."

Zuckerberg said he expects officials "to publish its findings when their investigation is complete."

More Transparent Political Advertising

As for what Facebook can do at this point, Zuckerberg pledged to "bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency" regarding political ads.

In the next few months, Facebook users will be able to visit the Page of an advertiser to see what other ads they've produced, as advertisers can target specific people with certain types of ads.

Meanwhile, Facebook will also "strengthen" its ad review process for political ads. "Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at Facebook. That's what happened here," Zuckerberg said, regarding the Russia ad buys. "But even without our employees involved in the sales, we can do better."

That includes adding 250 more people to Facebook's election integrity team, expanding partnerships with election commissions, and sharing more threat information with other tech and security companies. "It's almost certain that any actor trying to misuse Facebook will also be trying to abuse other internet platforms too," according to Zuckerberg.

He acknowledged that it will likely be impossible to "to catch all bad content in our system."

He continued, "We don't check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don't think our society should want us to. Freedom means you don't have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want. If you break our community standards or the law, then you're going to face consequences afterwards. We won't catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere."

This weekend, Germans head to the polls for an election many thought Russia would also try to disrupt. Thus far, however, Facebook has "not yet found a similar type of effort in Germany," Zuckerberg wrote.

Zuckerberg didn't really touch on fake news in his post, though Schrage said fake accounts like the ones that purchased ads often distribute deceptive material, such as false news, hoaxes, and misinformation. In the wake of last year's election, Zuckerberg asserted that "the idea that fake news on Facebook...influenced the election in any way… is a pretty crazy idea." Clearly, his view on that has evolved somewhat in the last year.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.