Facebook to turn over data on 3,000 Russian-bought ads to US authorities

22 Sep 2017

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock

CEO Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook will end untraceable political ads.

Social network Facebook has revealed it will turn over copies of more than 3,000 politically-themed ads bought through Russian accounts during the 2016 US elections to Congress.

This reverses an earlier decision by Facebook that had been frustrating politicians eager to get to the bottom of suspicions that Russian agents manipulated the platform to help tip the voting in the 2016 US presidential election towards Donald Trump.

In an announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company will make changes to ensure that political ads on its platform are more transparent.

Zuckerberg described the move as the most important step the company has ever taken.

He pointed out that political ads online are not regulated to the same extent as TV.

Facebook had been criticised for enabling the use of ‘dark posts’ which allow advertisers to target Facebook users without having the ads linked back to the advertisers themselves. These include at least 470 fake accounts and pages created by a Russian company that spent $100,000 targeting US voters.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said the social network has found more than 3,000 ads addressing social and political issues that ran in the US between 2015 and 2017, and that appear to have come from accounts associated with a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency.

“We subsequently made clear that we are providing information related to those ads, including the ad content itself, to the Special Counsel investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Since then, some people have asked why we aren’t sharing the content of the ads more broadly.

“After an extensive legal and policy review, today we are announcing that we will also share these ads with congressional 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.

“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.”

Zuckerberg promises transparency on Facebook ads

Live discussing Russian election interference.

Live discussing Russian election interference and our next steps to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, September 21, 2017

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity,” Zuckerberg said on Facebook Live last night.

“Facebook’s mission is all about giving people a voice and bringing people closer together. Those are deeply 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.”

Facebook had been criticised for being slow to respond to signals going back to last November that Russian entities had used Facebook and other technology platforms to deliver propaganda and manipulate voter sentiment.

“We’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency,” Zuckerberg said.

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

Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Frederic Legrand – COMEO/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years