Facebook to Disclose What Groups Were Targets of Russia-Backed Election Ads -- Update

By Deepa Seetharaman and Julie Bykowicz Features Dow Jones Newswires

Facebook Inc. will publicly disclose the types of people targeted by Russian-backed ads during and after the 2016 presidential election, operating chief Sheryl Sandberg said.

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In an interview Thursday with Axios, Ms. Sandberg acknowledged Facebook's platform was manipulated in a way it shouldn't have been during the election. She said the company was cooperating with Congress and planned to share with investigators more information about Russia-linked activity on the social network.

Facebook last month said it had identified 470 "inauthentic" Russian-backed accounts tied to one pro-Kremlin company that was responsible for $100,000 in ad spending on the company's platform. Those ads reached an estimated 10 million people.

The targeting information will reveal what kinds of American voters Russians aimed to reach. Facebook enables ads to be targeted by race, ethnicity, location and other characteristics.

Those who have seen the Facebook ads describe them as being intended to sow chaos. But Ms. Sandberg stressed that had the ads been purchased by legitimate accounts, Facebook would have allowed them to run.

"We don't check the information people put on Facebook before they run it and I don't think anybody should want us to do that," Ms. Sandberg said.

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Facebook is sharing information about its findings with other tech companies, she said. The company also is investing in machine learning to detect the kind of fake accounts that bought divisive ads and spread fake news during the election.

Facebook already has shared advertisements with Congress. On Thursday, Ms. Sandberg said the company also was willing to hand over free posts shared by those accounts, which would have reached far more users than the ads.

"We're going to give them the material they want," she said.

Congress is investigating foreign interference in the 2016 election, including efforts to back Donald Trump and oppose his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

On Wednesday, House lawmakers leading an investigation into Russian involvement in the presidential race said they would release the Facebook ads publicly. Facebook will help to scrub user information from the ads before their release.

Ms. Sandberg spent back-to-back days on Capitol Hill this week addressing some of Facebook's challenges in Washington.

On Wednesday, she met with leaders of the House Intelligence Committee. On Thursday, she and a team of several Facebook executives sat down with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of 49 black lawmakers.

In the Thursday meeting, Ms. Sandberg promised lawmakers that Facebook would do more to combat foreign influence on the platform, including committing additional staff and improving automated software to address fake content and foreign propaganda, according to lawmakers in the meeting.

According to lawmakers, the meeting also featured a frank discussion on what lines Facebook has established around hateful or divisive political or social content. Several Russian ads contained content aimed at inflaming racial, religious or other social divisions within American society.

"The meeting was a positive step in the right direction but these concerns around foreign interference in our election and fanning the flames of racial hatred are existential threats to our democracy," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat who was in the meeting. "It will take more than a singular meeting to resolve these challenges but Facebook does appear to be authentically committed to continuing to work with the Congress."

Byron Tau contributed to this article.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 12, 2017 15:28 ET (19:28 GMT)