Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

How Russia’s Election Meddling Became Facebook’s Problem


Facebook Inc. finds itself at the red-hot center of the investigation into Russia’s clandestine involvement in the 2016 U.S. election. The social-media giant said it has so far found $100,000 in advertising spending linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm with ties to the Kremlin. The company turned over details on the ads to Congress and to Robert Mueller, who is leading the criminal investigation into Russia’s campaign meddling and possible links to President Donald Trump’s associates. Facebook and its chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, already had a problem with fake news. Now they’re trying to overhaul rules around political advertising before being ordered to do so.

1. Where can I see the Russia-sponsored Facebook ads?

You can’t, at least for now. Facebook, in its Sept. 6 announcement, said it had already "shut down the accounts and pages we identified that were still active." We do know there were more than 3,000 ads, bought by Facebook accounts and pages linked to fake people, created by a group linked to the Russian government. The ads aimed to stir political controversy and divisiveness ahead of the 2016 election around issues such as race relations, immigration and gun rights. Some of the ads were targeted at certain regions of the U.S., and some mentioned candidates by name. Mueller has copies of the ads and information on the buyers. Facebook handed similar information to Congress after public outcry.

2. Why such interest in these ads?

Their existence may provide the first solid evidence of a foreign power spending money to influence the U.S. election. Depending on what Mueller’s investigators are able to do with the information provided by Facebook, the ads could shed light on if, or how, Russia coordinated with the Trump campaign.

3. Why did Facebook accept the ads?

Its self-service system allows anyone to buy ads -- and use sophisticated demographic and interest targeting to decide who to serve them to -- without any communication with a human at Facebook. So it’s not likely that a Facebook salesperson communicated directly with a Russian operative. Facebook, which could make the system more secure or transparent or accountable, says it’s working on technical solutions.

4. Could Facebook have rejected the ads?

In theory, it could have. In practice, it doesn’t block content, but deletes some content once it’s up. And its policy is that advertisers, not Facebook, are responsible for complying with local laws and regulations.

5. Were the ads illegal?

U.S. law prohibits a foreign national or entity from directly or indirectly influencing an election. An internet ad using text or images that advocate the defeat of a candidate would break the law. This is why it’s so important for investigators -- and the American public -- to see the actual ads in question. Facebook has said most of the ads focused on divisive social issues rather than on particular candidates. If true, such ad buys by Russians might not have been illegal. In a 2011 decision, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the ban on foreign nationals spending to influence elections does not prevent them from "spending money to advocate their views about issues," a decision that the Supreme Court later affirmed.

6. Doesn’t the U.S. government regulate political advertising?

It does, but its rules haven’t yet caught up with digital advertising. If Russia or some other foreign power tried running campaign ads on U.S. television or radio, the station would be required to disclose what times and programs the ads ran on, how much was paid, and who paid for it. Plus, the ad itself would need to state clearly who paid for it. Not surprisingly, there’s talk of regulating social media-based political advertising. Facebook may hope to stave off those calls by regulating itself. The company is adding transparency tools so in the future, people will be able to click on a political ad and see all the other ads the buyer is running on Facebook at that moment, to any audience.

7. Didn’t Zuckerberg play down Facebook’s role in the election?

He did. Immediately following the 2016 election, the CEO dismissed as "a pretty crazy idea" the suggestion that "fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way." In time, Zuckerberg decided that the idea was at least worth examining. (A personal appeal from President Barack Obama might have helped open his mind, according to the Washington Post.) After some digging, the company said in April that it had found evidence of coordinated misinformation campaigns using fake accounts, including in the U.S. That raised questions about whether money was involved, and it turns out there was. Now the company says it’s continuing to investigate other Russian groups and former Soviet states, and that more could be uncovered.

8. What happens next?

Facebook is likely to have to dispatch Zuckerberg or another representative to a congressional hearing in October to explain what happened, and how. Zuckerberg said there will be more human review of political advertising, and closer communication with governments around the world to catch bad actors.

9. Can Facebook really stop activity like this?

The company says it can’t stop such activity, just make it harder. Facebook has more than two billion users, so people are going to keep trying to use the platform to manipulate public sentiment. In April, Facebook said it will treat "attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people" on par with "traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams." Still, Zuckerberg doesn’t want to introduce any roadblocks to the speed or efficiency of Facebook’s systems. “If you break our community standards or the law, then you’re going to face consequences afterwards," he said in a video on Facebook on Sept. 21. "We won’t catch everyone immediately, but we can make it harder to try to interfere.’’

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Bill Allison

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