It's the U.K. Parliament vs. Facebook on Russia Meddling

Updated on
  • Company sees little attempt by Russia to influence Brexit vote
  • Parliament committee chair says company didn’t look too hard
Facebook Finds Itself at Center of Russia Investigation

Facebook Inc. tried to dismiss concerns of Russian meddling in the Brexit vote. But the chairman of an important committee in Parliament begs to differ and is escalating the fight in the U.K.

Damian Collins, a member of Parliament who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, attacked the social media giant for failing to address his questions about possible Russian interference in the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union and the June election.

In a letter to the committee released Wednesday, Facebook said the Internet Research Agency -- an entity that U.S. intelligence agencies have identified as part of a Russian-led effort to sway the U.S. presidential election -- only spent 97 cents on ads targeting U.K. audiences in the lead-up to the referendum. The money purchased three ads that were seen by about 200 people over four days in May 2016, according to the letter.

Collins hit back: “No work has been done by Facebook to look for other fake accounts and pages that could be linked to Russian-backed agencies and which were active during the EU referendum, as I requested," he said. The company, he said, had failed to answer the questions he put to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg in an Oct. 19 letter.

Back and Forth

Facebook had this to say in response: “We strongly support the Commission’s efforts to regulate and enforce political campaign finance rules in the United Kingdom, and we take the Commission’s request very seriously.”

Last year, Facebook said it wasn’t finding any Russian disinformation activity around the U.S. election, at first. The company was able to accelerate its search through the trillions of interactions on its site only after the U.S. government put out a public report explaining that the IRA was a firm on authorities’ radar. Facebook eventually estimated that about 150 million people in the U.S. saw IRA content on Facebook and Instagram before and after the election.

Facebook hasn’t seen a similar report from U.K. intelligence. The company has been working to hire people with security clearance so it becomes easier to have conversations with governments about where to look for bad actors.

Collins’s remarks come at a time when biggest U.S. internet companies are under mounting political pressure in the U.K., with Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly calling on tech companies to do more to combat extremist content on their sites. An influential watchdog panel recommended that Facebook and other social media platforms be regulated as publishers to prevent politicians from being subjected to abusive content and messages during campaigns.

Collins, a 43-year-old Conservative lawmaker, said that the company had done a more thorough investigation of tens of thousands of fake pages and accounts that were active during last spring’s French presidential election. 

“They should do the same looking back at the EU referendum and not just rely on external sources referring evidence of suspicious activity back to them,” he said.
 
He said it was not credible that Russian entities only used Twitter to try to influence British voters during the EU referendum, when both Twitter and Facebook were used during the U.S. presidential election. He said he had met with Facebook Wednesday and asked them for a more thorough response to his committee’s questions.

— With assistance by Sarah Frier

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