After rough year, Facebook does damage control in DC

After rough year, Facebook does damage control in DC
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Facebook is looking to repair its relationship with Washington, D.C. after a difficult year.

The social media company's reputation suffered a blow after revelations that Russian groups used its platform to interfere in the 2016 election.

Lawmakers blasted Facebook, questioning why it didn't detect the activity sooner and floated new rules for online political ads.

The company also faced scrutiny over race issues, including the lack of diversity on its board and criticism that its policies allowed advertisers to discriminate.

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“In an odd turn of events, Facebook has managed to upset both sides of the aisle in Washington," said Jason Kint, CEO of the media trade association Digital Content Next.

Kint said with the midterms approaching, Facebook could find itself a punching bag for both Republicans and Democrats.

"With 2018 elections heating up, I expect Facebook to be carved in the middle without anyone happy in DC,” he said.

The Russian interference in the 2016 election hovered over the company all year.

At first, Facebook dismissed criticism, with CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFight looms over national privacy law Facebook teaming with nonprofits to fight fake election news China may be copying Facebook to build an intelligence weapon MORE saying in November 2016 that it was "crazy" to blame fake news stories on the platform for the election result.

The backlash to those comments was swift and the company began taking steps to make it clear that it took the issue seriously.

"There have been claims that it swayed the election, and we don't think it swayed the election,'' Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said one month after Zuckerberg's comment. "But we take that responsibility really seriously.”

Facebook, though, resisted pressure from lawmakers to publicly testify on the Russian interference.

In June, it introduced its Hard Questions Blog to publicly address contentious issues about its policies.

“We take seriously our responsibility — and accountability — for our impact and influence,” Elliot Schrage, vice president of public policy and communications wrote in the first post.

The company, however, insisted it would deal with these issues internally, and long resisted calls from lawmakers to publicly testify on the Russian interference.

But in October, after mounting pressure, the company took steps to be more transparent, releasing to congressional investigators — and later the public — all of the 2016 ads linked to Russian groups.

The move earned it praise from lawmakers, but failed to dispel criticism that the company was not devoting enough resources to preventing such interference campaigns in the future.

Critics said Facebook would not have taken those steps without outside pressure and noted that a Washington Post story first publicly documented that the platform had hosted Russian groups' election ads.

The pressure led Facebook to also reveal other details about the full extent of Russian influence on its platform. Last month, the company introduced a tool to let Facebook and Instagram users see if they liked or followed any Russian-linked pages after prodding from lawmakers including Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocrats unite to expand Social Security Senate panel postpones election security bill markup over lack of GOP support Hillicon Valley: FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump tweets | Trump signs defense bill with cyber war policy | Google under scrutiny over location data | Sinclair's troubles may just be beginning | Tech to ease health data access | Netflix CFO to step down MORE (D-Ala.).

“I do think that our probe has certainly prompted more thorough internal investigation by the technology companies, which is positive,” Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in October.

For its part, Facebook maintains that its public steps to address these controversies were independent of any pressure. And Facebook says its committed to doing more.

“The decisions we make affect the way people on Facebook find out about the world and communicate with their loved ones. That’s an enormous responsibility – and one that we take incredibly seriously,” Erin Egan, vice president of U.S. public policy told The Hill in a statement Friday. "We are committed to continually learning and improving."

The company also faced tough questions from lawmakers after reports from ProPublica detailing how advertisers could discriminate against groups on the platform.

The Congressional Black Caucus grilled Sandberg on those issues and others during a meeting on Capitol Hill in October. After the talk, Sandberg promised the caucus Facebook would soon have a black board member.

She also wrote a letter to the CBC in November outlining Facebook’s steps to improve its diversity and treatment of minorities on its platform.

Facebook also announced that it would suspend targeted ads on “multicultural affinity groups,” which allow advertisers to exclude ethnic groups of their choosing from their ads on Facebook.

CBC lawmakers and staffers said they were pleased with the meeting and the letter, but that Facebook needs to do more in 2018 to repair the damage done.

“Facebook needs to announce a full and complete stop of racially targeted advertising in the pursuit of profit. What they’ve done before is basically suspension. They need to do a full stop and commit to not engaging racially targeted advertising,” a senior Democratic aide told the Hill Friday.

“It would set a precedent for the industry on this sort of digital redlining,” the aide added.

Facebook has said that tailoring ethnic preferences for advertisers is common in the industry, but critics say that response is not acceptable.

“That sort of thinking is akin to the response that developers and realtors shared while marketing housing in Levittown, Long Island,” the aide said, referring to housing discrimination.

It's unclear if Facebook's recent steps will repair its relationship with Washington.

Strategists said that by comparison, Facebook is doing a better job than Twitter and Google, who also faced criticism for their handling of election interference and racial issues.

“I think Facebook clearly made a lot of mistakes, but they've always cared about what policy makers and the public think," said Tom Galvin a partner at Vrge Strategies, a D.C.-based communications firm.

"They just have to listen and reflect those concerns better.”