Facebook Under More Scrutiny for Russia-Linked Election Interference
Ten months ago, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as "crazy" the suggestion that his platform had any influence on the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
Today, Facebook said it will provide the U.S. Congress with information about more than 3,000 political and social ads it ran that might be linked to alleged Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. That alleged interference is also the focus of an ongoing investigation by Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who was appointed special counsel by the Justice Department earlier this year.
In a live presentation on his personal Facebook page yesterday evening, Zuckerberg also outlined nine steps his company plans to take to limit interference in political and democratic processes, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. He specifically pointed to actions Facebook is taking to "ensure integrity of the German elections this weekend."
Ads from Inauthentic Accounts, Policy-Violating Pages
Last year's election cycle gave rise to widespread accusations and complaints about so-called "fake news," which -- depending on the source doing the complaining -- ranged from allegedly biased reporting in mainstream news outlets about either Trump or his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton to blatantly false stories about one candidate or the other that often went viral via social media platforms such as Facebook.
Shortly before the Nov. 8 election, for instance, BuzzFeed News described a "digital gold rush" in which a number of young men in the small Macedonian town of Veles pushed out false "aggressively pro-Trump content" via at least 140 Web sites they ran. Their aim: financial gain through Google AdSense revenues, which is based on reader clicks. And their method for boosting reader clicks? Going viral on Facebook.
Since Trump's election, other developments have pointed to numerous alleged attempts by Russia to support his candidacy via hacking, targeted information leaks, and the spread of misinformation on U.S. social media sites.
"[T]he idea that fake news, of which it's a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea," Zuckerberg said immediately after the election during an appearance at the Technomony16 tech event. "Voters make decisions based on their lived experience . . . People are trying to understand the result of the election, but there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news."
On Sept. 6, however, Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos revealed in a post on his company's newsroom that an internal review had found "approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 -- associated with roughly 3,000 ads -- that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia."
Zuckerberg: 'We Can Do Better'
In a newsroom post today, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said the company has not only provided information related to those 3,000 ads to Mueller, but will also share that information with investigators in Congress.
"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 noted. "That is an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries -- and we want to do our part. Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely."
When those ads were purchased, Facebook did not know they might be part of a Russian operation targeting the U.S. presidential election, Elliot Schrage, the company's vice president of policy and communications, added in a separate newsroom post today. He said that it was possible that further investigation might uncover more Facebook ads that were linked to fake Russian accounts or other foreign agents.
Speaking live on his personal Facebook page yesterday, Zuckerberg said the company will take a number of steps, including further cooperation with U.S. officials, continued internal investigations, and strengthened procedures for ad reviews, security, and threat-related information sharing. He emphasized repeatedly that "we can do better."
"I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," Zuckerberg said. "Facebook's mission is all about giving people a voice and bringing people closer together. Those are democratic values and we're proud of them. I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy -- that's not what we stand for."