Facebook comes clean on Russian buyers of US poll ad space
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.