The Cable

Facebook Hands Over Russian-Backed Ads to Congress, Announces Policy Changes

The social media company will also employ 250 to work on safety and security.

The "Facebook"-logo is pictured on the sidelines of a press preview of the so-called "Facebook Innovation Hub" in Berlin on February 24, 2016. / AFP / TOBIAS SCHWARZ        (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
The "Facebook"-logo is pictured on the sidelines of a press preview of the so-called "Facebook Innovation Hub" in Berlin on February 24, 2016. / AFP / TOBIAS SCHWARZ (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook announced it would be overhauling the way the platform regulates and responds to political advertising on Thursday in the wake of mounting criticism that it hadn’t done enough to detect and prevent fake Russian accounts from spreading pro-Trump and far-right-wing advertisements during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, also said during a Facebook live video that he had told his team to give the congressional Intelligence Committees copies of the Russian ads they had uncovered so far. Facebook initially resisted turning them over based on legal and privacy concerns.

Facebook’s lawyers had given the Department of Justice copies of the ads last week, but they suggested Congress needed a warrant or subpoena to access the information. The social media company allowed the Senate panel to examine a small sampling of the ads but would not provide copies for members to keep.

By turning over the information, Facebook now appears to have decided that giving Congress the content did not violate U.S. electronic privacy laws for advertisements that were once public on the platform.

“We support Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete,” Zuckerberg said.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted his support of Facebook’s compliance with the investigation, calling it an “important & absolutely necessary first step.”

Facebook also announced it would be hiring “more than 250 people” to focus on safety and security. Foreign Policy reported on Wednesday that previously only five people at the company were dedicated to working on “fake news” and foreign influence campaigns.

As Facebook continues to investigate, Zuckerberg said the company would be looking not only at Russian-connected accounts, but also those linked to other former Soviet countries and the American political campaigns.

Facebook will also require advertisers to link their ads to their official pages, where all their separate ad campaigns to different groups will be displayed.

That initiative appears to strike at the use of so-called “dark posts” by political campaigns. During the final days of the 2016 campaign, Trump lieutenants bragged to Bloomberg that they were running online “voter suppression” campaigns by targeting African-Americans, young women, and idealistic liberals.

To discourage African-Americans from going to the polls, for example, Trump campaign operatives purchased ads targeting that community. One ad featured a 1996 Hillary Clinton remark about “super predators” designed to chip away at her support among the key minority group.

The ads — targeted to the African-Americans on Facebook — were invisible to other users, allowing the Trump campaign to run what its operatives described as a subtle voter suppression effort.

Facebook’s transparency initiative appears to force campaigns to make such ad purchases public.

Social media companies have in recent years resisted pressure to more actively monitor all the content on their platforms in real time, though they have slowly moved toward more proactively addressing problem content, like child porn, terrorism, and now “fake news.”

Finally, Facebook noted that it has removed “thousands” of fake accounts in Germany in the runup to their elections.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would work harder to prevent people from using the platform to break the law or post something that goes against the company’s policies. But he also said that Facebook won’t be able to “catch all the bad content in our system.”

Photo credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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