Sheryl Sandberg Puts Onus on Congress to Show Facebook Ads

  • Social media giant has ‘enormous responsibility’ for scandal
  • Company has been asked to attend Nov. 1 congressional hearing

Facebook Finds Itself at Center of Russia Investigation

Facebook Inc. “absolutely” supports the public release of all ads bought on its platform by Russian government-linked accounts but maintains that it’s up to Congress to decide when to do so, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said.

The company is giving lawmakers whatever they ask for and will “stand by them” when they’re ready to release the ads, she said in an interview with Mike Allen of Axios.

Facebook has already turned over more than 3,000 ads to House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and Sandberg met in Washington Wednesday with Representatives Mike Conaway, a Republican, and Democrat Adam Schiff to discuss the investigation. Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are also being questioned by Congress, and all three companies have been asked to attend a hearing on Nov. 1.

“We’re giving them our piece, but they can understand the whole picture much better because they have more access than we do,” Sandberg said. “It’s important that they get the whole picture and that they explain that transparently to the American public.”

Separately, Sandberg promised to diversify Facebook’s board during a meeting Thursday with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, said caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat. "We think there is a tangible value to diversity," Richmond told reporters. Sandberg declined to comment after the meeting.

Conaway and Schiff said Wednesday that they intend to make the Facebook ads public, most likely after the hearing. Lawmakers and Facebook want to ensure the ads are released in a way that protects people’s privacy. Facebook has turned over the ads and the pages they link to and continues to provide information to the investigators, Sandberg said.

Sandberg said Facebook has an “enormous responsibility” for the Russian-ad scandal.

“Things happened on our network during the election that should not have happened,” she said. The company had been focused on preventing its users from getting hacked during the run-up to the election and didn’t fully recognize the kind of deceptive activity now linked to Russia until well into 2016, Sandberg said.

She reiterated how Facebook is trying to prevent this is from happening again, by focusing on deleting fake accounts like the ones used by Russian operatives to set up Facebook groups and buy advertisements. Facebook has said it will require human vetting of all political ads going forward and is hiring 1,000 new people to work on this.

Sandberg declined to say whether Facebook found any evidence that the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to target the ads to specific populations. “When the ads get released, we’ll also be releasing the targeting for those ads. We’ll be fully transparent,” she said.

Congressional investigators and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading a federal investigation, are trying to find if there was a link between how the Trump campaign and Russian actors targeted Facebook users, which could show collusion between the two.

Overall, Sandberg used the interview to maintain Facebook’s line that it wants to be a politically neutral platform that allows all views. Although it was working with outside organizations to help fact-check some of the news stories posted to the site, Facebook doesn’t want to be the one determining what news is “fake,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg also said not all fake news is politically motivated, that some is financially motivated and that Facebook is taking away economic incentives that would encourage such behavior. It’s also using third-party fact checkers. Many of the ads posted by Russian agents would have been perfectly fine if they hadn’t been posted by a foreign government, she said.

For more on Russian interference in the U.S. election, check out the Decrypted podcast:

“Should divisive political or issue ads run?” she said. “Our answer is yes.”

Following Sandberg’s meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Bonnie Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat, said, "I think she understands -- the company understands -- there are serious questions" about its platforms being used in "fueling divisiveness." Coleman said the meeting was a good start, "but actions speak louder than words."

A committee from the caucus will travel to northern California next week to meet with executives from five technology companies, said Representative G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat. "We are serious about them investing in African American talent," said Butterfield, who wouldn’t say which companies the lawmakers will visit.

Sandberg also met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "We talked about the diversity of their efforts internally in hiring, as well as externally in building that up," said caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat.

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