Face­book comes clean on Rus­sian buy­ers of US poll ad space

The Australian - - WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON: Face­book has handed over to spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller de­tailed records about the Rus­sian ad pur­chases that go be­yond what the com­pany shared with US congress this month, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

The in­for­ma­tion Face­book shared with Mr Mueller in­cluded copies of the ads and de­tails about the ac­counts that bought them and the tar­get­ing cri­te­ria they used, the sources said. Face­book pol­icy dic­tates it would turn over only “the stored con­tents of any ac­count”, in­clud­ing mes­sages and lo­ca­tion in­for­ma­tion, in re­sponse to a search war­rant, some said.

A search war­rant from Mr Mueller would mean he now has a pow­er­ful tool to probe the de­tails of how so­cial me­dia was used in a cam­paign of Rus­sian med­dling in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Rus­sia has de­nied any in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion.

Face­book has not shared the same in­for­ma­tion with congress in part be­cause of con­cerns about dis­rupt­ing the Mueller probe and pos­si­bly run­ning afoul of US pri­vacy laws, sources said.

A Face­book spokesman said the com­pany con­tin­ues to in­ves­ti­gate and is co-op­er­at­ing with US au­thor­i­ties. A spokesman for Mr Mueller de­clined to com­ment on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Face­book dis­closed this month that it iden­ti­fied about 500 “in­au­then­tic” ac­counts with ties to Rus­sia that bought $US100,000 ($125,000) worth of ads dur­ing a two-year pe­riod en­com­pass­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The com­pany also found $US50,000 in ad pur­chases linked to Rus­sian ac­counts. The com­bined funds pur­chased more than 5000 ads on Face­book, the com­pany said.

The dis­clo­sure was Face­book’s first ac­knowl­edg­ment that Rus­sians used its plat­form to reach vot­ers dur­ing the US cam­paign. It came about two months af­ter Face­book said it had no ev­i­dence of Rus­sian ad pur­chases.

In re­cent weeks, so­cial me­dia’s role in dis­sem­i­nat­ing false in­for­ma­tion or in­flam­ing pub­lic opinion has be­come a prime fo­cus of the Se­nate and House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees, which are con- duct­ing sep­a­rate probes into Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence on the elec­tion as well as whether Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign or as­so­ciates col­luded with the Krem­lin. The com­mit­tees are aim­ing to write com­pre­hen­sive pub­lic reports on Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity dur­ing last year’s cam­paign. Mr Trump has de­nied any col­lu­sion.

Twit­ter is also ex­pected to speak to con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the com­ing weeks about Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity on its plat­form, said Sen­a­tor Mark Warner, the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate in­tel- ligence com­mit­tee. A spokes­woman for Twit­ter de­clined to com­ment on whether the com­pany had re­ceived any war­rants or handed any­thing over re­lated to pos­si­ble Rus­sian ad buys.

Al­pha­bet’s Google unit said: “We’re al­ways mon­i­tor­ing for abuse or vi­o­la­tions of our poli­cies and we’ve seen no ev­i­dence this type of ad cam­paign was run on our plat­forms.”

A per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said the com­pany had not been called to tes­tify on the topic.

Con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors have been frus­trated by how lit­tle de­tail Face­book pro­vided about the Rus­sian ad buy­ing, sources said. In a brief­ing with Se­nate and House staffers early this month, Face­book of­fi­cials showed half a dozen ex­am­ples of ads pur­chased by the Rus­sian groups, the peo­ple said. Af­ter the brief­ing, Face­book staffers re­trieved all the ma­te­rial used in the pre­sen­ta­tion, leav­ing staffers with just their notes, the peo­ple said.

Aca­demic re­searchers and others also have crit­i­cised Face­book for not shar­ing more about the Rus­sian ad-buy­ing with the pub­lic be­yond the 720-word post it pub­lished this month. The post said most of the ads Face­book iden­ti­fied did not ref­er­ence the elec­tion, vot­ing or the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, and mostly fo­cused on “am­pli­fy­ing di­vi­sive so­cial and po­lit­i­cal mes­sages” on top­ics rang­ing from im­mi­gra­tion to gun rights.

Face­book of­fi­cials are wary of shar­ing more de­tails with the pub­lic and in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees for fear that pub­lic dis­clo­sure of in­for­ma­tion could dis­rupt Mr Mueller’s probe, sources said. Face­book also be­lieves the data about the ads could be pro­tected un­der the Elec­tronic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Pri­vacy Act, one of the peo­ple said.

Hand­ing over in­for­ma­tion or shar­ing it pub­licly with­out a valid le­gal or­der also could set a prece­dent for Face­book that would com­pli­cate its oper­a­tions, in­clud­ing in more au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­tries, the peo­ple said.

Sen­a­tor Richard Burr, chair­man of the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, and Sen­a­tor Warner are dis­cussing plans to call rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Face­book to Capi­tol Hill to pub­licly ex­plain how Rus­sians ma­nip­u­lated Face­book through paid and free posts to in­flame US pub­lic opinion and in­ter­fere in do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.

Though ne­go­ti­a­tions are con­tin­u­ing and no fi­nal de­ci­sion has been made, a Se­nate hear­ing on the role for­eign gov­ern­ments played on so­cial me­dia is likely to be sched­uled in com­ing weeks, ac­cord­ing to the bi­par­ti­san lead­er­ship of the Se­nate com­mit­tee.

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