Facebook shifts strategy under lawmaker pressure

Facebook shifts strategy under lawmaker pressure
© Greg Nash

Facebook is shifting its strategy with Congress, signaling that it intends to be more cooperative with lawmakers investigating whether groups with Russian ties used the social media giant’s ad platform to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Still, lawmakers say they don’t completely trust Facebook after the company rebuffed their initial demands for details about potential Russian influence. Instead, they say Facebook is only cooperating because of the pressure it faces.


Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Facebook is only cooperating because of pressure from lawmakers. On Monday, Facebook gave the committee 3,000 ads connected to Russia’s election interference efforts.

“I do think that our probe has certainly prompted more thorough internal investigation by the technology companies, which is positive,” echoed Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffMask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House CIA says 'Havana syndrome' unlikely a result of 'worldwide campaign' by foreign power The Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

The pressure from lawmakers also comes as the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting raises new questions about how the social network can be manipulated by scammers and rumormongers, adding to Facebook’s evolving dilemma over user content.

Facebook has responded to questions about Russian influence on the platform by announcing new policy changes and releasing steadily increasing amounts of information about election ads. 

Facebook says that it’s committed to cooperating with congressional investigators and has taken every opportunity to share what it has found with congressional investigators. 

But the company’s actions correspond to pressure from lawmakers.

In 2011, Facebook fought for an exception to a political ad disclosure law that would require buyers to put their names on political ads. 

Last month, several lawmakers penned a letter to the Federal Election Commission asking for guidance, and Sens. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNew Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (D-Va.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley — Biden celebrates 'right to repair' wins Advocacy groups urge Congress to tackle tech giants' auto industry focus Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (D-Minn.) began to solicit support for a bill forcing social media companies to disclose such information. Shortly after that, Facebook announced it would make advertisers disclose funding information on its own.

“Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in a livestream. 

The company initially only showed lawmakers and their staffs a portion of the 3,000 political advertisement purchased by a Kremlin-linked group and resisted handing over the ads, citing privacy concerns. But after public jabs from lawmakers about Facebook’s limited disclosures, the company conceded to turning over all 3,000 of the ads to congressional investigators. 

“If you look at it, at first Facebook was not going to release [the ads], and then they were,” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said on Monday. 

The initial scope of Facebook’s investigation only included Russia, a decision Warner criticized. 

“They had a fairly narrow search,” Warner told reporters in September. “They’ve not looked at things like Moldova. They’ve not looked at other countries where there’s lots of indication of trolls being used.”

Nine days later, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would expand its investigation to include accounts tied to former Soviet states.

On Monday, lawmakers began to vocally call for releasing the suspect ads to the public, instead of limiting the release to lawmakers. 

“The American people deserve to see the ways that the Russian intelligence services manipulated and took advantage of online platforms to stoke and amplify social and political tensions, which remains a tactic we see the Russian government rely on today,” Schiff said in a statement.

“I am demanding that they be made public … the American people have a right to know,” Blumenthal told reporters that afternoon. 

By that evening, Facebook had released its most detailed report of the ads to the public. In a post, Facebook revealed that 10 million users had seen the ads, for which the company also provided detailed viewing statistics. 

Facebook says it had always planned to release the figures and wasn’t reacting to the Monday comments from Schiff and Blumenthal. 

Lawmakers have frequently slammed Facebook’s level of cooperation with the Russia investigations, but Twitter has earned even more criticism.

Warner hammered Twitter last week after it briefed lawmakers and staffers on its investigation of Russian influence. Lawmakers, with Warner chief among them, were disappointed to find that Twitter had limited its search for Russian election-influencing accounts only to Twitter users tied to already-flagged Facebook users, conducting an expanded investigation of its own.

“Their response was frankly inadequate on almost every level,” Warner said.

Schiff, in a more measured comment, also expressed disappointment with what Twitter shared with lawmakers.

“Twitter’s work was derivative of Facebook’s, so there might be a whole universe of Russian activity on Twitter that Twitter has not discovered so far,” Schiff said.

Warner and Schiff plan to press both companies for more answers and push for further cooperation. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees will both hold hearings regarding Russian interference on social media platforms. 

Facebook, Twitter and Google have all been formally invited to testify at the Senate Intelligence hearing, but have not publicly said whether they will accept the invitation to the Nov. 1 hearing. The House Intelligence Committee has also expressed an interest in having representatives from the three companies at its own hearing. 

“How thorough has their investigation been?” Schiff said. “What more remains to be done? These are the questions we’ll be posing at the open hearing.”


Katie Bo Williams contributed.