Facebook Says It Will Hand Over Russia-Backed Ads to Congress -- 3rd Update

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

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

Continue Reading Below

The measures include 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 manipulation.

"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 toward the prevalence of 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.

Continue Reading Below

Activity that is illegal or against Facebook's community standards would be punished after the fact, Mr. Zuckerberg added. Facebook typically punishes users by suspending their accounts or removing offending posts.

Facebook earlier this month said that Russian entities paid $150,000 to run 5,200 divisive ads on its platform during the campaign. The disclosure, prompted by congressional probes as well as a separate inquiry 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 with Congress. The House and Senate intelligence committees are both conducting probes of Russian activity during the 2016 election with the aim of uncovering what happened during the campaign for president. Facebook briefed the committees on its findings in recent weeks.

Russia has denied U.S. intelligence agencies' reports that it interfered in the election.

"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.

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

The company was wary of disclosing the ads publicly due to privacy concerns and fears of disrupting the Mueller inquiry, the Journal previously reported. Facebook said it is giving Congress only a portion of the ads: the 3,000 created by accounts tied to a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency. They represented $100,000 in ad spending.

Facebook said it found another 2,200 ads, amounting to $50,000 in spending, that were potentially tied to other Russian 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."

"American voters have a powerful and compelling interest in knowing who is seeking to influence their vote," said Trevor Potter, president of Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for more disclosure and regulation of money in politics. Facebook's handing over of the ads "is a step in the right direction, but not nearly far enough."

Facebook is in a difficult position as it tries to balance its privacy obligations toward 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. Facebook, in negotiating the agreement with Congress, was concerned that the personal information of its users, such as their names or images, might have appeared in the ads, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The fuller disclosure sets a risky precedent for Facebook, which has been reluctant to reveal user and advertiser data.

One of Facebook's proposals announced Thursday would name the buyer of any political ad, a measure that could keep Facebook one step ahead of pressure from some lawmakers, who want to apply tighter rules to political advertising on social media. Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter Inc. are exempt from many of the campaign-finance rules for television and radio content, which were written long ago.

Congressional leaders and other groups are starting to discuss legislation that would require social-media firms to create a public-disclosure portal of political ads, similar to television and radio requirements.

Separately, Democrats are pushing the Federal Election Commission to create new rules that would curb the ability of foreigners to spend money on political advertising.

Holding social media to the same standard as broadcasters wouldn't necessarily have stopped Russian ads from appearing on Facebook, experts say, because most of the ads paid for by Russian entities didn't mention the election, voting or either candidate. The ads focused on hot-button social and political issues.

Facebook said it is still working out how its software would determine which ads were political in nature. The vast majority of its advertisers use its self-service ad platform and never interact with a Facebook employee.

Facebook is probing how its site was used during the election by foreign actors, from Russia and other former Soviet states, and political campaigns.

"It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections," Mr. Zuckerberg said. "But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion."

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 20:25 ET (00:25 GMT)