Facebook Says It Will Hand Over Russia-Backed Ads to Congress -- 2nd Update

By Robert McMillan, Byron Tau and Deepa Seetharaman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Facebook Inc., under fire for its response to Russian activity in the U.S. presidential election, said Thursday it would take steps to increase political transparency on its site and has agreed to hand over detailed information on thousands of Russian-backed ads to congressional investigators.

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The measures include bolstering the transparency and disclosure requirements for political ads on Facebook's platform, boosting its ad-review process and adding more than 250 employees to its team working on election integrity, more than doubling the size of that group.

The actions highlight how Facebook is grappling with its growing role in politics -- and the social network's potential for abuse.

"I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy," Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said during a live video broadcast on the site. "That's not what we stand for."

At the same time, Mr. Zuckerberg sought to limit how far Facebook would go in monitoring content on its platform, reflecting the hands-off approach it had taken with misinformation on its site during the campaign. Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook won't review posts or ads prior to their publication on the platform.

"Freedom means you don't have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want," he said.

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Facebook earlier this month said that Russian entities paid $150,000 to run 5,200 divisive ads on its platform during the U.S. presidential campaign. The disclosure, prompted by congressional probes as well as a separate investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, came after Facebook said this summer that it had found no evidence of such activity.

Facebook has been under political pressure to be more forthcoming to Congress with information about the ads. The House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting separate probes of Russian activity during the 2016 election with the aim of writing comprehensive reports to publicly document what happened during last year's divisive campaign. Facebook briefed the committees on its findings in recent weeks.

Russia has denied any interference in the election.

The company made more complete disclosures of Russian-linked material to Mr. Mueller for his criminal and counterintelligence investigation into the same topic.

Still, Facebook is only giving Congress a portion of the ads: the 3,000 ads created by accounts tied to a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency, which accounted for $100,000 in ad spending. Facebook found another 2,200 ads, amounting to $50,000 in spending, that were tied to other accounts such as those associated with U.S. internet addresses but with the language set to Russian. It is a violation of Facebook policy to create "inauthentic accounts" on the platform.

"It will be important for the Committee to scrutinize how rigorous Facebook's internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did to discover the Russian sponsored advertisements and what else may yet be uncovered," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Facebook is in a difficult position as it tries to balance its privacy obligations toward its users, while at the same time informing the American public about Russian influence during the election, said Thomas Rid, professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

But the fuller disclosure sets a risky precedent for Facebook, which has long been reluctant to reveal data about its users and advertisers.

According to a January report from the U.S. intelligence community, Russia's interference was directed at the highest levels of government. Its tactics included hacking state election systems, infiltrating and leaking information from party committees and political strategists and disseminating through social media and other outlets negative stories about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and positive ones about Donald Trump, the report said.

President Trump has denied any collusion.

Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com, Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 21, 2017 17:40 ET (21:40 GMT)