OCT 4, 2017 @ 08:20 PM
Congressional leaders on Wednesday called on Facebook FB -0.91% and Twitter TWTR +0.91% to publicly share Kremlin-linked political ads that spread on social media in what appear to be a Russian-backed effort to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
However, the Senate Intelligence committee — one of three committees investigating the relationship between Russia’s efforts to meddle in the U.S. presidential election and the campaign of Donald Trump — said in a press conference that it will not release the Russian-linked ads turned over by Facebook and Twitter, or any materials provided by witnesses or companies in its probe. Instead, it will be left up to the social media companies to decide whether to share the ads with the public.
“At the end of the day, it’s important that the public sees these ads,” vice chairman of the Senate committee Mark Warner said on Wednesday in the group’s most extensive public briefing since launching its investigation early this year.
A Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, echoed Warner’s comments.
“Among the most pernicious features of Russian interference was the cynical and calculated use of social media to divide and exploit our internal divisions,” Schiff said in a statement. “It is my strong opinion that all of the Facebook advertisements purchased by the Russians should be made public, so that all Americans can be armed with more information about Russian methods. I also strongly believe that the RT ads on Twitter should be made public.”
It is not yet clear whether Facebook and Twitter agree to make the ads public. Facebook and Twitter did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication on Wednesday. Earlier, Facebook said it would be up to Congress to decide what details about the approximately 3,000 Russian-linked ads it shared with Congress on Monday should be publicly disclosed. Facebook said the ads were purchased by inauthentic profiles and pages linked to the Internet Research Agency, an entity known for spreading Kremlin-linked propaganda. Last week, Twitter said it found 201 accounts on its site linked to the fraudulent accounts Facebook had previously identified. Twitter also reported that the Russian-backed news site RT, which a U.S. intelligence report said attempted to meddle in the U.S. election, bought $274,100 of ads on Twitter last year. Under federal law, foreign governments and foreign nationals are prohibited from making contributions or spending money to influence a federal, state or local election in the U.S.
The issue of Russia’s use of social platforms to interfere in the U.S. election has engulfed various tech giants, most notably Facebook, which has come under withering criticism for its failure to effectively police content and ads on its site.
In an apparent effort to regain public trust, Facebook ran a full-page ad in several major newspapers outlining nine steps the company said it is taking to protect people from election interference. They include hiring more people to review ads and partnering with governments globally to curb online interference. The ad noted the company has shared the 3,000 Russian-linked ads identified so far with Congress but did not address whether it would share those ads publicly.
“Many have asked are we going to release the Facebook ads,” Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said in Wednesday’s briefing. “The Senate Intelligence committee does not release documents provided by witnesses, companies, whatever the classification — it’s not a practice we’re going to get into.
“Clearly if any of the social media platforms would like to do that, we’re fine with them doing it,” Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, added.
Burr did not speculate on the specific political outcome desired by the Russian operatives, describing their “preferences” as “indiscriminate.” However, he said the ads shared so far suggest Russia’s intention was “to create chaos at every level,” in “every group they could identify in America.”
Google, Facebook and Twitter are expected to appear in a November 1st briefing regarding Russian involvement on their platforms.
Sen. Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, also called on Wednesday for new standards for online political ad disclosure, similar to requirements already in place for TV and radio. He said the public should know when ads on social media are created by foreign entities, and should also be able to easily see all of the political ads a given entity is running. Warner said he expects there would be “broad bipartisan support” for such legislation and said that he has “heard comments” that digital media companies like Facebook and Twitter “are open” to these rules. (In prior years, Facebook had actively lobbied against disclosure rules for political ads, according to Bloomberg.) Sen. Warner also said online platforms have a responsibility when displaying “trending” content to make it clear why a particular story is prominent, for example, if it was promoted by a bot or selected by a human, and what factors explains its placement.
Senate investigators have spent hundreds of hours interviewing top officials connected to the Trump campaign, the administration of former President Barack Obama and intelligence officials. Burr said on Wednesday that “the issue of collusion,” probing whether Trump or Trump associates colluded with the Russian government is “still open.” Burr said the Senate Committee hopes to conclude its probe by the end of 2017. Senate leaders have endorsed earlier findings by the U.S. intelligence community that the Russian president Vladimir Putin led a coordinated campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election. Russian election meddling doesn’t appear to be limited to the U.S. Russian efforts may also have extended to France, the Netherlands and Germany, according to the Senate leaders. Russia may try to meddle in upcoming U.S. elections this year and next, the committee said.
Sen. Warner initially berated Facebook and Twitter for not appreciating the severity of the problem. On Wednesday, he said he expressed more confidence that the companies are beginning to take action.
“I was concerned at first that some of those social media companies did not take this threat seriously enough,” Warner said in the briefing. “The companies are increasingly understanding that their actions need to match their public statements that they realize how important it is to maintain the integrity of our democratic process.”
The leaders stressed that moderation by online advertisers will only become more crucial. Burr estimated that the use of digital political ads increased by 700% from 2012 to 2016 and could double or triple again by the next presidential election.
“They have more work to do,” Warner said.