Senator Says Facebook’s Russian Ads Suggest Need for New Law

Updated on
  • Warner says it may be only ‘a small piece’ of foreign meddling
  • Kremlin has ‘no connection’ to ad buys, Putin spokesman says

Legislation or regulation may be needed to require Facebook Inc. and other social-media companies to prevent foreign adversaries from manipulating the feeds viewed by U.S. citizens, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

“I’m glad they came through with some information,” Senator Mark Warner told reporters Thursday, a day after Facebook said it found about $100,000 in ad spending connected to fake accounts probably run from Russia. “But there’s a lot more questions.”

Warner said the company had earlier “pooh-poohed” suspicions that Russians manipulated postings on Facebook and other sites as part of a campaign to meddle in last year’s U.S. campaign for president. What Facebook found may be only “a small piece of the election interference through social media,” the senator from Virginia said.

The U.S. presidential election has put the social-media company under increased scrutiny and forced it to consider its role in society, and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s thinking has evolved. A day after the election, he played down the role fake news may have played in the election, calling the theory "pretty crazy." He soon reversed course, saying the issue was important for Facebook’s community. Still, Facebook has struggled with exactly how transparent to be about its processes and how deeply to police its users.

Accounts Deleted

The company deleted accounts and pages involved in buying the ads believed to be tied to Russia because they were fake users in violation of the network’s policies. The company hasn’t disclosed the nature of the more than 3,000 ads that ran, and a spokesman wouldn’t say what U.S. states they ran in, what they promoted or how many people they reached. Facebook said it can’t share the ads while the investigation continues.

“We are continuing to cooperate with appropriate authorities and have shared the results of our internal inquiries to this point,” the company said Thursday in a statement. “And of course, we will continue to review what Russians could have done to manipulate the platform.”

The ad spending linked to Russia and disclosed by Facebook was relatively small. Alphabet Inc.’s Google issued a statement Thursday saying that “we’re always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies, and we’ve seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms.”

Warner said representatives of Twitter Inc. will be coming in to meet with the Senate panel soon. Emily Horne, a Twitter spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Different Medium

Facebook and other social-media companies aren’t subject to the regulations on political advertising developed long ago for broadcasters.

“That’s just not the case with digital,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor at the University of San Francisco who studies political advertising. “All the laws were created before we had the digital world, and it’s just harder to track.” The companies may rush now to self-regulate to stave off government action, he said.

Warner said the issue is “obviously” relevant to the Intelligence Committee’s inquiry into Russian interference, which U.S. intelligence agencies found was intended to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and ultimately help Republican Donald Trump win the White House, and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in the effort.

Republican Senator Richard Burr, the Intelligence Committee’s chairman, declined to comment on whether the committee might hold a hearing about outside influence on Facebook or Twitter. But he rejected the idea of moving legislation through his panel and added that foreign interference in U.S. elections is already illegal.

Question of Jurisdiction

“That would not be the jurisdiction of our committee,” the senator from North Carolina said. “And if, in fact, there was foreign money that went into advertising in U.S. elections, that’s a Justice Department thing to look at, it’s an FEC question, because foreign money cannot be used on behalf of elections. The question is, is there a regulator of social media?”

Warner wasn’t suggesting a legislative solution would go through the Intelligence Committee, according to Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for the senator. She noted that he serves other roles, including as a member of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over election spending and disclosure issues.

Outside groups, including Common Cause, filed a complaint with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission Thursday alleging that the Facebook disclosures mean unknown foreign nationals made campaign ad expenditures in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Warner, who became a multimillionaire in telecommunications, said he believes Americans would want to know if “pop-up” news they may rely on “came from a foreign source.”

The Kremlin had no connection to the Facebook ad campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

“We have never heard about it, we know nothing about it and -- even more -- we have no connection to these issues,” Peskov said.

— With assistance by Mark Bergen, Stepan Kravchenko, Selina Wang, and Steven T. Dennis

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