Facebook Steps Up Efforts to Sway Lawmakers

By Julie Bykowicz Features Dow Jones Newswires

As the probes of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election turn to the role of social-media giants, Facebook is looking to boost its influence in Washington amid talk of potential federal regulation.

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The Menlo Park, Calif., company has invested more than $8.4 million this year on its 36-member federal lobbying team -- putting it on track to spend more on federal lobbying than in any previous year. The company recently added Republican-led Hamilton Place Strategies and other communications strategists to its team and posted an ad seeking a crisis communications specialist.

The tech giant also held several focus-group sessions last week hosted by Quadrant Strategies, a Democratic-led research firm. People familiar with the sessions said public relations professionals and other Washington insiders were among the attendees. Facebook was soliciting advice as to how best to respond to the Russia ad controversy -- and how to communicate with Republicans in particular, the people said.

Proposed messaging strategies appeared to highlight the company's desire to fix any problems on its own rather than through regulation, the people said. Among the test messages were "we're not a news organization" and "we can combat the problems with automated buys with other automated tools." Facebook drew criticism during the 2016 campaign for fabricated news reports that appeared in users' news feeds. And last month, the company disclosed that it had sold political ads to Russian entities that wanted to help elect President Donald Trump during last year's campaign.

Democrats are now leading the charge to force technology companies to disclose more about who is buying political ads on their sites.

Lawmakers and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating U.S. intelligence agencies' findings that Russia interfered in the election and whether Trump associates colluded in that effort. Mr. Trump has denied any collusion by him or any associates and Russia has said it didn't interfere in the election.

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Executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google have been called to appear before three congressional panels next week: the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism on Tuesday, followed by back-to-back appearances in front of the Senate and House intelligence committees a day later.

Facebook says it is cooperating with both the Russia probes and with separate efforts by lawmakers and federal regulators who considering whether to require more regulation of online political advertising. "We stand with lawmakers to achieve transparency in political advertising," said Erin Egan, Facebook's vice president for U.S. public policy. She added: "We work across the political spectrum."

Silicon Valley companies can appear to predominantly favor Democrats, based on the campaign contributions of their employees and the favored politicians of their leaders, but they have adapted in the past few years to a Republican-led Washington.

When Facebook opened its Washington office almost a decade ago under the leadership of a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, it had a $200,000 lobbying budget and its employees made a few thousand dollars' worth of federal political contributions each year, all to Democrats, according to federal lobbying records.

Although Facebook employees -- including Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg -- still donate mostly to Democrats, the company tries to balance that by giving more heavily to Republicans through its corporate political committee, according to the Federal Election Commission reports.

And Joel Kaplan, a former policy adviser to President George W. Bush, oversees an army of in-house lobbyists and those contracted at eight outside firms.

The company's highest-paid outside lobbying firm, Subject Matter, added to its Facebook roster Ed Kutler, once an adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump confidant. In the spring, Facebook brought in as a policy team member Sandy Luff, a former top aide to now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Over the years, Facebook also has developed relationships with Republicans and Democrats alike by working closely with politicians to help them communicate with voters and constituents on Facebook, showing them how to use tools such as advertising to maximize their reach.

When Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter recently that Facebook was on Democrat Hillary Clinton's "side, not mine!" Andrew Bosworth, who until recently was the company's vice president of advertising, responded in a tweet: "We offered identical support to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, and had teams assigned to both. Everyone had access to the same tools."

Mr. Trump's campaign took advantage of the offer, strategizing with a Facebook representative at about how to reach and persuade the most voters possible.

And when there was a recent uproar over former Facebook employees' claims in media reports that its "trending topics" news feature sometimes suppressed conservative voices, Mr. Zuckerberg met with conservative television commentators and Republican strategists at Facebook's headquarters. The company undertook an internal review and said it found no evidence of "systemic bias" but outlined ways it would rework the way Facebook curates news.

Republicans point to the way the company handled the "trending topics" controversy as evidence that they can work with Facebook.

"As a tech company, they're one of the few that goes out of their way to be neutral," said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser who attended Mr. Zuckerberg's gathering.

Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), chairman of the Senate panel that oversees most tech policy, said he was pleased with how Facebook responded to the trending topics questions, saying he was satisfied with the answers and that "transparency -- not regulation -- remains the goal."

Facebook was swept into the Russia election-meddling investigations when it disclosed early last month that it sold $100,000 worth of political ads to "inauthentic" Kremlin-linked accounts. Those ads, touting Trump, disparaging Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton and stoking political and cultural divisions, were viewed by an estimated 10 million Facebook users, according to the company.

Facebook officials said they have turned over to Congress the 3,000 ads in question and underlying data about the groups of Americans targeted by the messaging. Lawmakers say they will eventually make the ads public.

Twitter, which is also being investigated as part of the Russian interference probe, announced this week it, too, would voluntarily begin disclosing more advertising information.

A recent Marist poll found that 64% of Americans think campaign advertisements on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter should be regulated.

Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who assists Facebook, Twitter and other companies in developing their privacy policies, said that like automobiles and railroads in earlier generations, the tech industry has matured to the point of needing stronger regulation.

--John McKinnon, Deepa Seetharaman and Byron Tau contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 26, 2017 15:11 ET (19:11 GMT)