In a major reversal, Facebook agreed today to share with Congress more than 3,000 ads linked to a Kremlin-linked group believed to attempted to influence the 2016 US election. The company had previously shared the ads with Robert Mueller, the special counsel currently investigating Russian interference in the presidential election. Facebook had resisted sharing the information more broadly, saying it would threaten advertisers’ privacy.
“Disclosing content is not something we do lightly under any circumstances,” Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel, said in a blog post. “We are deeply committed to safeguarding user content, regardless of the user’s nationality, and ads are user content. Federal law also places strict limitations on the disclosure of account information. As our biannual transparency reports make clear, we carefully scrutinize all government data requests, from here and abroad, and we push back where they do not adhere to those legal limitations.”
“Disclosing content is not something we do lightly under any circumstances.”
Facebook’s internal review of ads linked to the 2016 election will continue, the company said. For months after the election, Facebook said it found no evidence of Russian interference. Then, on September 6th, the company disclosed that Russia-linked groups had spent about $150,000 on political ads, some of which mentioned candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton by name.
Facebook’s moves today come amid the growing likelihood that Congress will attempt to impose new regulations on the platform, which reaches more than 2 billion people a day around the world. This week, Democrats called for the Federal Election Commission to adopt new rules to block foreign agents from purchasing political ads on social media platforms.
“The data Facebook will now turn over to the Committee should help us better understand what happened, beyond the preliminary briefings we already received,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said in a statement. “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.”
News that Facebook would hand over the ads to Congress was one of a number of major announcements made today by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who laid out a series of steps he said Facebook would take in the coming months in an effort to protect the integrity of elections around the globe. Facebook is under growing scrutiny by national governments for its role in elections — and as an attack surface that can be exploited by foreign agents to influence public opinion and electoral outcomes.
Facebook is under growing scrutiny for its role in elections
Other steps Facebook will take include adding disclosures to political advertisements that specify who paid for them, Zuckerberg said in a live broadcast on the platform. The company will also add more than 250 employees in the coming year to work on election integrity initiatives, he said, doubling the existing workforce.
Facebook plans to expand partnership with election commissions around the world, sharing information about known and emerging threats, Zuckerberg said. And it will share its knowledge with other companies as part of a joint initiative to thwart bad actors, he said.
In the meantime, Facebook has taken action against thousands of fake accounts in the run-up to the election in Germany this weekend, Zuckerberg said. An initial analysis has not found a Russian effort to influence the campaign similar to the apparent effort in the United States last year, he said.
The full text of Zuckerberg’s remarks is embedded below (unless you’re reading this on Apple News).