Facebook to turn over Russian-linked ads to Congress

CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined several ways the social networking giant plans to tackle online interference in elections, including changes to its ad buying policies.

After coming under growing scrutiny from Washington, Facebook on Thursday announced that it will hand over to Congress Russian-linked ads that may have been intended to sway the 2016 US election.

Earlier this month, the social networking giant revealed that it identified about 500 fake accounts with ties to Russia that purchased $100,000 worth of ads during the campaign season, as well as $50,000 ad purchases from Russian accounts. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was sharing information about the ad purchases with special counsel Robert Mueller, but it was sharing less information with Congress in part because of its concern over US privacy laws.

In a video posted on Facebook Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that after sharing information with the special counsel and briefing Congress on the matter, he directed his team on Thursday morning to hand over the ads to Congress.

"We support Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete," Zuckerberg said.

In a separate post, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch called this a "difficult decision."

"Disclosing content is not something we do lightly under any circumstances," Stretch wrote. "We are deeply committed to safeguarding user content, regardless of the user's nationality, and ads are user content. Federal law also places strict limitations on the disclosure of account information."

That said, Stretch added, "it is vitally important that government authorities have the information they need to deliver to the public a full assessment of what happened in the 2016 election. That is an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries."

Facebook will be limited in what it can discuss publicly about its findings, Zuckerberg said, given the information is part of an ongoing federal investigation.

The CEO outlined several other steps Facebook will take to tackle malicious interference in elections, including changes to its ad buying policies. Going forward, advertisers will be required to reveal which Facebook page is paying for political ads. Additionally, the advertisers' page will have to publicly show all the ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook. Zuckerberg said the changes will be rolled out in the coming months.

"We will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads," he added.

Facebook will also "strengthen" its ad review process for political ads, Zuckerberg said without providing more detail.

Just a day earlier, a group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), asking it to create new rules for political advertising on social media.

"Social media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly-detailed information," the letter says. "As we have seen, the low cost of reaching these users equips hostile foreign actors with a powerful new tool for disruption of our democratic process."

After Zuckerberg's announcement, some political operatives and transparency advocates expressed skepticism over how the changes would be implemented, as well as whether they are sufficient:

The Sunlight Foundation commended Facebook but said the FEC and Congress should still mandate the disclosure of a public political ad file from technology companies.

"Facebook took an important step forward, but that a single company has this kind of power shows clearly that we urgently need legal reforms to mandate disclosure online," John Wonderlich, executive director for the Sunlight Foundation, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, in addition to changing its ad buying policies, Zuckerberg said Facebook will increase its investments in security and election integrity. The company plans to add more than 250 employees working on those issues, more than doubling the size of its team working on election integrity. Facebook also plans to step up its collaboration with election commissions worldwide, as well as other tech and security companies.

The company is also "working proactively to strengthen the democratic process," Zuckerberg said, with actions such as scaling out its ballot information tools and adapting anti-bullying systems to protect against political harassment.

Zuckerberg also cited ways the company is working with public authorities to try to ensure the integrity of the upcoming German elections. "We're also examining the activity of accounts we've removed and have not yet found a similar type of effort in Germany," he said.