Facebook Faces Growing Pressure Over Russia’s Use in Election

  • Democrats ask FEC for guidance on regulating political ads
  • Senate Intelligence Committee hearing seen likely in October

Facebook to Go Before Senate Panel on Russian Meddling

Facebook Inc. is facing growing pressure from Congress over Russia’s use of social media to influence the U.S. election, with several Democrats calling Wednesday for such companies to face disclosure requirements for political advertising.

Facebook -- which recently disclosed it was paid by Russians for election-related ads -- is expected to be called before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a public hearing in October, with panel leaders demanding a full accounting from the company. 

On Wednesday, a group of Democrats sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission saying more transparency is needed for Facebook and other social media networks when it comes to political spending.

"We must address the threat posed by foreign citizens, companies, or organizations who aim to interfere with our political process," Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland wrote in a letter. It was also signed by Elijah Cummings and John Conyers, the ranking Democrats on the Oversight and Government Reform and Judiciary committees, and Democratic Senators Martin Heinrich and Ron Wyden, both members of the Intelligence Committee.

Sarbanes wants the FEC to follow up with new rules requiring disclosure for political ads on social media outlets, including Facebook and Twitter Inc., so they are as transparent as broadcast ads.

"It just raises the issue of who’s spending what in our elections and what negative impact it is having,” he said in an interview, noting Facebook’s Russia disclosures.

He said the FEC has existing authority to do this and can act without a new law, although the letter asks the FEC for guidance on whether new legislation would be appropriate.

"Their mission is to protect the integrity of our elections," he said, urging them to move quickly so rules are in place ahead of the 2018 elections, given the potential for additional attempts at foreign interference.

Needs ‘Teeth’

"There has to be teeth," he said. "But you can’t impose penalties without standards and guidelines. That’s the first piece."

Sarbanes said he hopes Facebook will be "open and transparent" and responsive, something senators in both parties have questioned up until now.

Part of the reason it’s hard to police Facebook is that much of the advertising is purchased not through a salesperson, but through a self-service system, which allows buyers to set their own targeting parameters for an audience. The company reviews the ads through a mix of automatic and manual processes, but mostly to ensure that the ads fit rules for the platform -- not to evaluate the nature of the buyer. 

The system’s automatic nature opens it up for potential abuse, and not just by those hoping to influence an election. A ProPublica report last week, for example, found that people were able to buy ads targeting users who described themselves as "Jew haters." Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said Wednesday that the company was adding more human oversight and manual review, as well as clarifying its policies. She didn’t mention the election.

Digital platforms also aren’t beholden to the same transparency rules for election ads as more traditional mediums, like television. Facebook has since given information to Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the type and targeting of the Russia-bought ads.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said Tuesday that the company has been "less than forthcoming" and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia has repeatedly questioned whether the company has put enough resources into the issue of foreigners using Facebook to interfere with elections.

Sarbanes says he’s reserving judgment.

"Let’s hope that’s what you see going forward," Sarbanes said. The company "can step up and show what they’re made of."

For more on Facebook and fake news, check out the Decrypted podcast:

— With assistance by Sarah Frier

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