Russian Ad Scheme Prompts Policy Shift at Facebook

WASHINGTON (CN) – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is actively working with Congress to disclose 3,000 Russian-bought advertisements that circulated on the social media site during the 2016 election.

Though previously willing to provide only sample ads that ran on the social-media site during the campaign, pressure from Congress and political watchdogs sparked Zuckerberg to announce the shift Thursday via Facebook Live.

Noting that he “didn’t want anyone to use [Facebook] tools to undermine our democracy,” Zuckerberg listed a series of steps in the announcement that the company would take to alleviate any growing concerns.

Zuckerberg maintains that there was no evidence initially of fake accounts being linked to Russia running ads. The recent discovery of this activity prompted the company to turn over the information to special counsel.

He noted that Facebook is limited as a general rule as to what it can turn over to investigators, but made a promise to release any findings on foreign actors, including those from Russia or other former Soviet states and associated organizations.

“When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them,” he said. “But you still don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else.”

Facebook will also roll out a new ad process over the coming months, complemented by a more robust review process.

“Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so that you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said.

Though several controls have already been place for ad review, Zuckerberg said it was a lack of human touch that led to the influx of Russian-backed ads.

“Most ads are bought programmatically through our apps and website without the advertiser ever speaking to anyone at Facebook,” he said. “That’s what happened here, but even without our employees involved in the sales, we can do better.”

Zuckerberg noted that catching all the bad content would be impossible.

“We don’t check what people say before they say it and frankly, I don’t think our society would want us to. … If you break our community standards or the law, then you’re going to face the consequences afterwards,” he added. “We won’t catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere.”

The company also has plans for heavier investment in tech-security teams and more thorough coordination with international election commissions that can help mitigate the threat of propaganda snaking its way through the ubiquitous site.

Legal watchdogs, like the Campaign Legal Center, were among some of the first groups to ramp up pressure on Zuckerberg, demanding that Facebook turn over any findings on the ads to Congress.  

In a letter sent to Zuckerberg on Sept. 12, Campaign Legal Center President Travis Potter, who is also the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, was cautious over the prospect of Facebook’s willingness to cooperate.

“For years, Facebook has pressured the Federal Election Commission not to extend existing disclaimer requirements to online political ads, which helped create the secrecy that gave rise to foreign interference in the 2016 elections,” Potter wrote. “Many ads on Facebook did not comply with current FEC regulations on such disclaimers even though Facebook was unable to obtain an FEC exemption from that requirement.”

Potter added that his organization would continue to monitor Facebook’s implementation of new policy and suggested the company submit written comments to the FEC in October which would enforce “reasonable disclaimer rules” for any political ads run online.

Brendan Fischer, staff attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, welcomed the move.

“We still believe that Facebook should make the content of the Russian-purchased ads public so that the American people can understand the nature of the foreign influence effort,” Fischer said in a statement. “These were paid ads, not private conversations between users: by their very nature, these messages were directed at segments of the public. Facebook’s plans to make more of these ads public in the future is a positive step towards greater transparency but there are many unanswered questions about the contours of this policy and how it will be implemented.”

 

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