WASHINGTON – Under growing pressure from Congress and the public to reveal more about the spread of covert Russian propaganda on Facebook, the company said Thursday that it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to congressional committees investigating the Kremlin’s influence operation during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity,” Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said on Facebook Live, the company’s video service. He added that he did not want anyone “to use our tools to undermine democracy.”
“That’s not what we stand for,” he said.
The announcement that Facebook would share the ads with the Senate and House intelligence committees came after the social network spent two weeks on the defensive. The company faced calls for greater transparency about 470 Russia-linked accounts — in which fictional people posed as U.S. activists — which were taken down after they promoted inflammatory messages on divisive issues. Facebook previously angered congressional officials by showing only a sample of the ads, some of which attacked Hillary Clinton or praised President Donald Trump.
Facebook’s admission Sept. 6 that Russian agents covertly bought ads on the site during the 2016 campaign has brought intense scrutiny on the social network and on Twitter, entangling both companies in the investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Both companies have turned over detailed data to Mueller.
The disclosure of the ads also raised the possibility of future regulation of political advertising on social media. This week, congressional Democrats asked the Federal Election Commission to advise on ways to prevent illicit foreign influence on U.S. elections via social media, including possible new laws or regulations.
Facebook’s actions underscored how far it has strayed from being a mere technology company and how it is confronting the unintended consequences of the tools it provides to reach the more than 2 billion people who use the site regularly.
On Thursday, in a move clearly intended to pre-empt government intervention, Zuckerberg outlined the list of actions Facebook planned to take in the coming weeks to make political advertising more transparent. He said each ad would show which Facebook Page — a kind of account required for businesses to create an ad — had paid for the ad, although that would not necessarily identify the people behind the Facebook Page. In addition, Facebook plans to invest more heavily in its security teams, expand its coordination with global election commissions and work closely with other tech companies to share threat information as it arises.
Despite Russia’s attack, Zuckerberg argued that Facebook remained a force for good in democracy, promoting billions of online discussions, linking voters to candidates and helping 2 million Americans register to vote.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, praised Facebook’s announcement but said he still believed regulation was needed to ensure that voters know more about who is behind ads on social media.
“This is a good first step,” he said. “I’m disappointed it’s taken 10 months of raising this issue before they’ve become much more transparent.”
Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., circulated a letter inviting colleagues to cosponsor a bill that would require greater transparency for online political ads.