Facebook on Thursday agreed to hand over to congressional investigators more than 3,000 Russia-linked social media ads that appeared on its platform, two weeks after it notified Capitol Hill that fake accounts had spent about $100,000 on the ads from June 2015 to May 2017.
The largely unregulated social media behemoth appeared to succumb to mounting pressure from a bipartisan push for more details about the unprecedented surge of Russian propaganda during the presidential election.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the firm’s live video platform to admit the company had little control over social media misinformation. He added that its transparency regarding the Russia probes was being conducted in the spirit of protecting America’s “free and fair elections.”
Mr. Zuckerberg hinted that the company may not provide much information publicly, saying that the ongoing federal investigation will limit what he can reveal.
“As a general rule, we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations, so we may not always be able to share our findings publicly,” he said.
Investigators thus far have said that the Russia-linked accounts spread the disinformation — rather than touting candidates Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump — amplifying divisive American social and cultural issues including immigration, race, gay rights and gun control.
While the Russian saga has rattled Washington for months with allegations that President Trump colluded with the Kremlin, or that the Obama White House spied on the Trump campaign, several lawmakers have indicated that the most unsettling aspect of the scandal has been the painful recognition that America’s social media addiction could be more dangerous than any outside adversary.
The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center stressed again on Thursday that the company should make the ads public “so that everyone can see the nature and extent of the use of Facebook accounts by Russia.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, calls the ads just the “tip of the iceberg” — while the committee chairman, Richard Burr, had asked very bluntly: “The question is, is there a regulator of social media?”
For Mr. Burr, Mr. Warner and other key lawmakers driving the multiple Russian meddling probes, much of the Facebook issue revolves around the divide between the worlds of social media campaign advertising and traditional broadcasting campaign advertising.
For decades TV and radio broadcasters have been subject to the Federal Election Commission’s political advertising laws and regulations. Facebook and other social media companies are not subject to FEC laws that focus on financial disclosure.
The rules are the reason political TV and radio ads include the candidate “stating that he or she has approved the communication,” according to the FEC.
Lawmakers are now wrestling with whether such protocols should apply to social media.
On Thursday Mr. Zuckerberg said that in addition to releasing the ads, the company will conduct a deeper investigation into how the firm was manipulated.
“We are in a new world,” Mr. Zukerberg said. “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.”
This week Democrats on Capitol Hill asked the FEC for advice on ways to prevent foreign influence in elections, while Twitter — the other social media giant — is set to brief the Senate intelligence committee next week behind closed doors.
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