House Lawmakers Plan to Release Facebook Ads Bought by Russians

By Natalie Andrews and Christopher S. Stewart Features Dow Jones Newswires

House lawmakers leading an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race plan to release Facebook Inc. ads bought by Russian groups, they said Wednesday.

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"My personal advice is that we'll do it as quick as we can," said Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the investigation on the House Intelligence Committee.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said: "We've asked for Facebook's help to scrub any personal, identifiable information" from the ads. "After we do that, we'll release them publicly."

Messrs. Conaway and Schiff met with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on Wednesday.

Late Wednesday Ms. Sandberg posted on her Facebook page about the meeting, saying she discussed the ads Facebook provided to Congress and that Facebook executives "reiterated that Congress is best placed to decide if and when the ads should be made available to the American people" and is committed to doing so in a "way that protects peoples' privacy.

Facebook executives plan to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to discuss how Russians were allowed to publish ads pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Lawmakers who have seen the Facebook ads describe them as being intended to "sow chaos." A page called "Blacktivist" appeared to be aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a source familiar with the pages. Another ad, labeled "Secured Borders," railed against illegal immigration.

Under fire for its response to Russian activity on its site before the presidential vote, last week Facebook presented congressional investigators with data on 3,000 ads bought by Russian actors before and after the presidential election.

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that a campaign authorized by the highest levels of the Russian government hacked into state election-board systems and the email networks of political organizations to damage the candidacy of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Russia has denied interfering in the election.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to hear from representatives of Facebook, Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Twitter Inc. on Nov. 1 in a public session that will look at how Russian groups used the platforms during the election. The House panel is planning a similar hearing the same day, and Mr. Conaway said the ads probably wouldn't be released before then.

The move to publicly release the Facebook ads is a shift from earlier efforts by lawmakers to placate social-media companies' desire to keep the matter private.

Earlier this year, the office of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) invited Google, Twitter and Facebook, along with terrorism analyst Michael S. Smith II, to attend a July congressional hearing, organized by the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

The companies balked, Mr. Smith said in an interview, fearing the optics of an open session.

Sen. Graham's office told Mr. Smith that social media companies were "averse" to a public setting, fearing they would have to "acknowledge certain persistent problems" on their platforms, Mr. Smith said. He said he believed the companies were afraid that painting a "rosy picture would ultimately put them in a position of being accused of lying to Congress."

Under pressure from the companies, lawmakers twice scaled back the session -- first to a closed hearing and finally to a closed informal briefing, which was held in September, Mr. Smith said. It was attended by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) and Mr. Graham, as well as Senate Judiciary Committee staff.

The Senate Judiciary Committee staff didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the briefing formally focused on terror recruitment online, it also touched on Russian influence in social media, according to Mr. Smith. Generally, he said the companies acknowledged the influence problem and said they were concerned. Mr. Smith said the senators said they were looking forward to learning more about the issues.

Write to Natalie Andrews at Natalie.Andrews@wsj.com and Christopher S. Stewart at christopher.stewart@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 11, 2017 22:36 ET (02:36 GMT)