Facebook agrees to give Congress Russian ads and pledges to dig further

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday that the social media giant would share 3,000 ads purchased by a suspicious Russian company with investigators for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday that the social media giant would share 3,000 ads purchased by a suspicious Russian company with investigators for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. AP

WASHINGTON Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg bowed to mounting public pressure Thursday and announced that the social media giant would turn over to congressional investigators about 3,000 ads purchased during the 2016 presidential campaign by a mystery-shrouded Russian company with links to the Kremlin.

Zuckerberg also announced that his company would take new steps during future elections to identify purchasers of sponsored ads, which can be targeted to the Facebook pages of narrow groups of voters without public awareness, and to curb the spread of fake news on its platform during election campaigns around the world.

“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s not what we stand for … We’re going to make political advertising more transparent.”

The ads Facebook is producing for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were bought through 470 phony accounts that could be traced to a Russian company, the Internet Research Agency. Some cyber experts believe they were part of a trial run as Russian intelligence agencies learned the workings of Facebook. California-based Facebook has said only about 25 percent of the initial ads named Clinton or Trump, while the others were focused on social issues such as immigration and gun rights.

It remains unclear whether Facebook will examine the buyers of all ads carrying fake and anti-Clinton news during the election to determine whether the Russians later bought more ads, but took sophisticated steps to disguise their involvement.

“We will continue our investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election,” Zuckerberg said. “We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government. We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states, as well as organizations like the campaigns, to further our understanding of how they used our tools.”

Social media companies that now play roles in the constant communication of billions of people worldwide have been thrust into the center of multiple investigations into Russia’s cyber offensive last year aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential election. Russian operatives bombarded these outlets with fake and harshly critical news about Democrat Hillary Clinton – attacks that U.S. intelligence agencies say were aimed at helping Donald Trump capture the White House.

Twitter, Inc. and Google, Inc., which owns the video Web hosting site YouTube, both say they also are cooperating with investigators. Twitter representatives are expected to be interviewed by House and Senate investigators next week.

Facebook disclosed over the weekend that it would comply with a warrant obtained by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller and would turn over copies of the 3,000 ads and information about their sponsors uncovered in an internal investigation. But the California company had initially balked at also providing the ads to Congress, citing its longstanding policies aimed at protecting the privacy of its clients.

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a news post on the California firm’s website that Facebook had conducted an “extensive legal and policy review” before making an exception to its privacy policy and agreeing to let congressional investigators review the ads and information about their sponsors.

“We believe it is vitally important that government authorities have the information they need to deliver to the public a full assessment of what happened in the 2016 election,” Stretch said. “This has been a difficult decision. We are deeply committed to safeguarding user content, regardless of the user’s nationality, and ads are user content.”

However, he noted that Russia used sophisticated efforts to compromise the election and said “understanding those efforts requires a united effort, from across the technology, intelligence and political communities.”

The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that it had discovered that Russian propagandists placed Facebook ads promoting as many as a dozen Trump rallies across Florida, a swing state in the presidential race.

Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had pressed for production of the ads, but wanted the company to provide them voluntarily, rather than under a subpoena.

Election watchdog groups have demanded that Facebook make the ads public, but the company said Thursday that ”given the sensitive national security and privacy issues involved in this extraordinary investigation, we think Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”

Zuckerberg said that in the future, Facebook will strengthen its reviews of ad posts, increase sharing of threat information with other tech companies and expand partnerships with election authorities around the world.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re going to catch all bad content in our system,” he said. “We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think our society should want us to.”

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2