Facebook's Sandberg says company committed to public release of Russia-backed 2016 election ads

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks during the opening of the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt, Germany on Sept 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said on Thursday (Oct 12) that the company has fully committed to helping US congressional investigators publicly release Russia-backed political ads that ran during the 2016 US election.

"Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened," Sandberg said during a interview in Washington with the Axios news website. "We told Congress and the intelligence committees that when they are ready to release the ads, we are ready to help them."

The live interview was the first by a senior Facebook executive since the company disclosed last month it had found some 3,000 politically divisive ads believed to have been bought by Russia in the months before and after the presidential campaign.

The interview with Sandberg came during a multi-day visit to Washington that included meetings with US lawmakers. On Wednesday, she met privately with the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation.

Sandberg's outreach comes as the social media giant and other major Internet firms, including Alphabet's Google and Twitter, are on the defensive as they try to limit the fallout from a torrent of new revelations about how Moscow sought to use their platforms as vehicles to sow discord in the United States and to influence the election.

Sandberg told Axios the company began hearing rumours of Russian attempts to use the platform to spread propaganda around election day last November, but did not give a precise timeline about when the company began its review.

Sandberg said she supported the public release of those ads, and the pages they were connected to. Information about how the ads were targeted toward specific kinds of users would also be released, she said.

Asked if Facebook contributed to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's defeat last year, Sandberg, an open Clinton supporter during the campaign, did not answer directly, but said it was important the website was "free from abuse" during any election in any country.

But Sandberg acknowledged the company had erred in how it handled the issue of foreign interference last year.

"It's not just that we apologize. We're angry, we're upset. But what we really owe the American people is determination" to do a better job of preventing foreign meddling," she said.

"We don't want this kind of foreign interference" on Facebook, Sandberg added. "Any time there is abuse on our platform, it troubles us. It troubles us deeply."

She said the company had been too permissive at times in terms of how advertisers are allowed to target users, and that Facebook did not want to allow ads that may be "discriminatory."

Still, Sandberg said it was important to protect "free expression" on Facebook. Had the Russian ads been bought by legitimate accounts instead of fraudulent ones, many would have been allowed to run on the site, she said.

She also criticised Twitter's decision this week to remove a campaign video from Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn, who is running for Senate in Tennessee. Twitter took down the video, saying a remark Blackburn made about opposing abortion was inflammatory, but later recanted.

"In that ad, there are a lot of things that people don't like, that I don't like... But the question is, 'Should divisive political or issue ads run?' Our answer is yes, because when you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for all people," she said.

Sandberg said the company wanted other Internet firms to work to make ad purchases more transparent, but said Facebook was still talking about the issue with lawmakers who want to introduce legislation on the topic.

Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter are expected to testify about Russian influence at hearings before the Senate and House intelligence committees on Nov 1.

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