Facebook pushed to publicly release Russian-connected ads

Facebook pushed to publicly release Russian-connected ads
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A growing number of lawmakers are pushing for Facebook to publicly release political ads purchased on its platform by Russian actors during the 2016 elections.

They argue that the public should see the ads so that they can be informed on how foreign actors may try to exploit Facebook ads to influence them.

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“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,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game Hillicon Valley: Kushner accused of using WhatsApp, personal email for official work | White House rejects request for Trump-Putin communications | Facebook left 'hundreds of millions' of passwords unsecured | Tech pressured to root out extremism Five things to watch for as White House readies for Mueller report MORE (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said earlier this week.

Facebook has been hesitant to make the ads public.

Though the social media giant released 3,000 advertisements to congressional investigators this week, it only did so after initially resisting pressure from lawmakers.

“Federal law places strict limitations on the disclosure of account information,” Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a Sept. 21 post on the company’s website.

“Given the sensitive national security and privacy issues involved in this extraordinary investigation, we think Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”

The company revealed in September that the Kremlin-linked “Internet Research Agency,” had purchased $100,000 in political ads on its platform around the 2016 elections.

A source with knowledge of Facebook’s thinking says that the company is hesitating because it believes it is unclear to what degree Russian interference in the U.S. election happened on its platform.

Most lawmakers, however, seem to want the ads to be made public.

“I don’t know why the ads [shouldn’t be released],” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate GOP poised to go 'nuclear' on Trump picks GOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters on Thursday. “I assume that they were already published, so they’re not secret to my knowledge.”

“I think [the ads] need to be public,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Kushner accused of using WhatsApp, personal email for official work | White House rejects request for Trump-Putin communications | Facebook left 'hundreds of millions' of passwords unsecured | Tech pressured to root out extremism Lawmakers urge tech to root out extremism after New Zealand Dems request probe into spa owner suspected of trying to sell access to Trump MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel, said on Thursday.

At the same time, Warner said it should be Facebook that releases the ads to the public, and not members of Congress.

“I also agree with [Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP's Tillis comes under pressure for taking on Trump Warner says there are 'enormous amounts of evidence' suggesting Russia collusion McCarthy dismisses Democrat's plans: 'Show me where the president did anything to be impeached' MORE (R-N.C.)]. We don’t want to set a precedent by giving out materials. I think it’s up to Facebook,” Warner said.

The top ranking Democrat in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP lawmaker offers constitutional amendment capping Supreme Court seats at 9 Overnight Energy: Judge halts drilling on Wyoming public lands over climate change | Dems demand details on Interior's offshore drilling plans | Trump mocks wind power Dem senators demand offshore drilling info before Bernhardt confirmation hearing MORE (Calif.), says she agrees with Warner. The Senate Judiciary Committees also has the ads.

It’s unclear if there are lawmakers who are opposed to the ads being released to the public. Warner and others declined to comment on whether any of their colleagues pushed back against calls to make the advertisements public.

Outside observers, however, are divided on whether the release of the ads would serve the public.

Some believe that the transparency would help restore public trust in Facebook and other companies, but others think that a mass release of the ads publicly could have negative impacts.

“[Showing the ads] might just create more fear, lower levels of trust, and give the Russian government more credit than they deserve for what happened in 2016,” said Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the University of Oxford who has explored how governments use social media to influence people.

Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has testified before the Senate on Russian operations, thinks that while researchers could provide insights by analyzing the ads, showing them to the public would only cause problems.

“It creates a wild sea of conspiracies,” Watts said. “I do worry about the public. I don’t know if they really understand what they’re looking at. Everyone thinks they can somehow analyze Facebook. Often people aren’t equipped to do it.”