Facebook Estimates 126 Million People Saw Russian-Backed Content

By Deepa SeetharamanFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Facebook Inc. estimates that about 126 million people may have seen content posted by Russian-backed accounts over more than two years that sought to disrupt American society, the social-media giant plans to tell congressional investigators Tuesday, according to a prepared copy of the remarks obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

The potential audience for the content spread by Russian-backed accounts connected to a single pro-Kremlin firm, the Internet Research Agency, reveals for the first time the reach of the alleged Russian disruption. Facebook previously had focused narrowly on the 3,000 advertisements spread by the 470 accounts.

Continue Reading Below

But critics including lawmakers said the accounts likely had much broader scope including their organic content, such as free posts and events listings. In all, the accounts churned out 80,000 pieces of content -- organic posts and ads -- on Facebook between January 2015 and August 2017, the social-media company plans to say.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch is scheduled to testify in front of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism Tuesday afternoon, alongside the general counsels for Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google. Twitter and Google also have found evidence of Russian activity on their platforms during the 2016 U.S. presidential election period.

In his testimony, Mr. Stretch plans to say that "any amount" of fake or malicious activity is "too much," while at the same time playing down its importance, according to the prepared remarks. Mr. Stretch plans to argue that these posts were a small fraction of the content consumed by Americans during this period -- 0.004% of posts, or one out of 23,000 pieces of content.

Executives from the three companies are scheduled to testify on Wednesday in front of the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are both conducting probes of Russian activity during the 2016 election to uncover what happened during the campaign for president. Facebook has given posts and ads created by the 470 accounts to the committees.

Facebook has said the ads and posts were meant to exploit social and political divisions in the U.S.

"Many of the ads and posts we've seen so far are deeply disturbing -- seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other," Mr. Stretch plans to say, according to the prepared remarks. "They would be controversial even if they came from authentic accounts in the United States. But coming from foreign actors using fake accounts they are simply unacceptable."

Russia has denied any interference in the election.

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

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 30, 2017 18:27 ET (22:27 GMT)