Facebook has struck a deal with Capitol Hill investigators to release ads purchased by Russians to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, while CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed Thursday to take further steps to protect “the integrity of free and fair elections.”
The move comes amid mounting pressure from Congress to release the Russian-related ads, particularly criticism from Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Two people familiar with the matter disclosed the deal to POLITICO shortly before Facebook announced it publicly.
Warner called the decision “important & absolutely necessary first step,” writing on Twitter that “the American people deserve to know the truth about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.”
In addition to disclosing details about the ads, which had been placed by a so-called Russian troll farm, Zuckerberg said his giant social media company will pursue a deeper internal investigation into how outside parties may have used its platform during 2016. Those parties include other Russian groups, former Soviet states and “the campaigns” — a seeming reference to the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton operations.
“We may find more, and if we do, we will continue to work with the government on it,” Zuckerberg said during remarks streamed on Facebook Live.
Moreover, said Zuckerberg, the company will newly require advertisers to both disclose their sponsorship of advertisements and post every version of their paid ads on their individual Facebook pages. Facebook will also double its team working on election integrity, and will inform election commissions around the world about the “online risks that we’ve identified in their specific elections.”
“We are in a new world,” he added. “It is a new challenge for internet communities to have to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”
The company separately released a statement from Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch describing the deal with Hill investigators. “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,” he said.
Thursday’s news represented the latest stage of acknowledgment by Facebook that Russians may have used ads and so-called “fake news” to influence the 2016 election, in a year when U.S. intelligence agencies have charged that Vladimir Putin’s regime developed a preference for Trump to prevail over Clinton.
Former Clinton campaign aides hurled criticism at Facebook after her defeat, saying the company had allowed misinformation disparaging their candidate to flourish on the social network. “This is something we were very aware of [but] saw zero percent chance Facebook was going to be compliant or work with us during the election,” Clinton campaign chief digital strategist Teddy Goff told POLITICO in the days after Trump’s victory.
Anger at Facebook among Clintonites hasn’t let up. Clinton herself recently said in a television interview that the company has “a long way to go before they get where they need to be” when it comes to examining its role in the election.
Zuckerberg rejected the criticism at first, saying shortly after the election that it’s a “pretty crazy idea” to think that “fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way.” He added that “voters make their decisions based on lived experience.”
But Facebook had to change its tone early this month, when it disclosed that Russian elements had bought more than 3,000 politically charged ads worth about $150,000 on its platform during key periods of the presidential campaign, often dealing with issues such as race, immigration and gun rights.
On Thursday, Facebook linked the ads to a controversial Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency. It was the first time Facebook had specifically pointed the finger at the Agency, which The New York Times described last year as a sprawling operation that has “industrialized the art of trolling” and become a prolific source of internet hoaxes.
In his live chat, Zuckerberg offered some explanation for the change in his assessment of the foreign-meddling threat.
“We have been investigating this for many months, and for a while we had found no evidence of fake accounts linked to Russia running ads,” he said. “When we recently uncovered this activity, we provided that information to the special counsel,” referring to Robert Mueller.
But despite its cooperation with Mueller, the company had only shown some of the ads to members on the Hill in a private session — and had not released extensive information about the ads.
The ads have become of increasing interest to Mueller and his team, according to people familiar with the investigation, because they could show Russian efforts to interfere — and who was behind them.
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