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Facebook's Russian ad disclosure leaves more questions than answers

by Alex Thompson and Noah Kulwin
Sep 6 2017, 6:54pm

Facebook admitted on Wednesday that it discovered evidence suggesting Russian propagandists purchased ads on its platform during the 2016 election. But although Facebook has now affirmatively acknowledged the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, we’re not even close to getting the whole story.

After conducting a review, the tech giant found 470 “inauthentic [Russian] accounts and Pages” spent $100,000 to place about 3,000 ads on Facebook between June 2015 and May 2017, the social network’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said in a press release. About a quarter of the ads were “geographically targeted” to Facebook users, and roughly 2,200 of the ads — about $50,000 worth — were “potentially politically related.”

But Facebook isn’t releasing the ads, which means there’s no way to analyze how the disclosure might affect ongoing federal investigations of the matter, whether the ad purchases constituted a violation of election law, and if there are more revelations ahead.

“Without seeing the ads, it’s impossible to know,” Ian Vandewalker, an election law expert at the NYU Brennan Center for Justice, told VICE News.

A blockbuster announcement

Stamos and Facebook said that while they don’t have exact proof that Russians purchased the ads, they believe the ad buys originated from the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” set up by the Russian government to disperse fake content and propaganda on social media.

Facebook’s disclosure is a stunning admission, and possibly indicates a violation of election laws that stipulate foreigners cannot spend money to influence U.S. elections. But without releasing the ads themselves — which Facebook tells VICE News it is declining to do — the public must rely on Stamos’ description of what the ads purportedly showed.

“The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the U.S. presidential election, voting or a particular candidate,” Stamos said in the statement. “Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

UC Irvine election law scholar Rick Hasen noted in a blog post that if the ads did not expressly support one candidate or another, but “are intended to influence the outcome of the election,” the legal implications are mixed.

“If the Facebook ads just riled up people on guns but did not mention Trump but were intended to help Trump get elected, can those be illegal? That’s the harder question,” Hasen wrote.

Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee who formerly chaired the agency, noted that without commenting on the specifics of the situation, “the law says foreigners are not allowed to spend directly or indirectly on a U.S. election.”

Not a lot of specifics

Facebook also declined to say whether Russian operatives purchased ads directly or through an intermediary like a digital agency to hide their tracks. A company official declined to elaborate on the possibility.

Until Wednesday, Facebook had declined to outline any specifics about Russian government-directed influence operations on its platform during the 2016 election in support of Donald Trump’s campaign. In an April report, the company asserted that content pushed by “false amplifiers,” like the “inauthentic” accounts described in the Wednesday release, accounted for less than a tenth of a percent of normal “civic” content shared on the social network.

Another looming question is whether the Russian operatives were given direction on where to geographically target ads by associates of Trump’s presidential campaign. Congressional investigators and reportedly Special Counsel Bob Mueller are examining this possibility, and the Trump campaign digital director, Brad Parscale, is set to testify before the House Intel Committee on this matter sometime in the coming weeks. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Sen. Warner hits back

Facebook issued the Wednesday release as a number of outlets published stories about Facebook meeting with Congressional investigators to discuss the findings on Wednesday. For months, lawmakers have been making a stink about a possible Russian influence campaign run on Facebook last year; the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, Mark Warner, has repeatedly called on the company to disclose any relevant information.

Bemoaning the lack of regulations on internet political advertising, Sen. Warner told reporters gathered at the Capitol Building on Wednesday evening that that he wants to bring social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter “in for public hearings.”

“[Social media companies] need to follow the law, and if the law needs to change to meet 21st century standards, let’s have at it,” Warner said. “I’ve got a lot more questions for Facebook, and a lot more for Twitter.”

When asked if the newly disclosed spending meant that Warner would continue pressing Facebook, Warner said, “I think there’s a lot more to be discovered, and there’s a lot more transparency that’s needed from Facebook, Twitter, and other firms.”

He added that he plans to continue speaking with Facebook, and that while using a subpoena to compel information is not “off the table,” he believes social media companies “are going to want to continue to cooperate.”

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