Lawmakers say they plan to release Facebook ads linked to Russia

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, during a Bloomberg Studio 1.0 television interview at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on July 28, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said on Wednesday (Oct 12) that they planned to make public the thousands of Facebook ads linked to Russia that appeared during the 2016 presidential election campaign, the first indication that the ads would be released.

The lawmakers told reporters about their plans after an afternoon meeting with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer. They said the 3,000 ads would probably be released after a Nov 1 hearing on the role of social media platforms in Russia's interference in the election.

Sandberg sat down with Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, the Republican leader of the House investigation, and Representative Adam B. Schiff of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the committee, at the start of two full days of meetings with federal officials. The meetings are a part of the company's lobbying and public relations push to contain fallout from disclosures that a group linked to Russia bought more than US$100,000 (S$135,435) in ads on divisive issues on Facebook.

Lawmakers and public interest groups have called for the release of the ads, which Facebook shared with Congress last month, to understand what kind of material foreign buyers placed in front of Facebook users. But Facebook has said it had no plans to release the ads.

Sandberg also agreed to hand over additional Facebook content unrelated to ads, such as fake news and inflammatory posts on pages to organise rallies, that the Russian-linked actors appeared to use to sow discord, Schiff said.

"They will provide that information in the near future, and that will be important to look at," he said in a separate interview.

Schiff and Conaway said Sandberg appeared to understand the gravity of the political pressure surrounding Facebook.

"I think they certainly realise the intense interest in what the Russians did on their platform, the responsibility they have on their own to ferret this material out," Schiff said to reporters after the meeting.

Before the ads can be released to the public, he said, they need to be scrubbed of any personally identifiable information. He said lawmakers had asked Facebook for help in that process.

On Thursday, Sandberg will meet with the media outlet Axios for a 30-minute interview about Facebook's handling of the Russia inquiry. Then she will meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who are concerned that racist and anti-immigrant messages spread on the site were amplified by the platform's technology and fake accounts.

Meanwhile, Facebook has begun overhauling how it handles political ads on its platform and may put some changes in place before U.S. elections next year, its chief technology officer said on Wednesday.

U.S. congressional and state elections set for November 2018 present a deadline of sorts for Facebook and other social media companies to get better at halting the kind of election meddling that the United States accuses Russia of.

"We are working on all of this stuff actively now, so there is a big focus in the company to improve all of this on a regular basis," Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said in an interview.

"You're going to see a regular cadence of updates and changes," he said, speaking on the sidelines of a conference that Facebook is hosting about virtual reality technology.
Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said last month that the company would begin treating political ads differently from other ads, including by making it possible for anyone to see political ads, no matter whom they target. U.S. lawmakers had begun calling for regulations.

Disclosures by Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc's Google that their products were battlegrounds for Russian election meddling last year have turned into a crisis for Silicon Valley.

Moscow has denied allegations of meddling in last year's U.S. presidential election.

Implementing changes is tricky, Schroepfer said, because Facebook does not want to stifle legitimate speech and because of the volume of material on Facebook, the world's largest social network with 2 billion users and 5 million advertisers.

"We're investing very heavily in technical solutions, because we're operating at an unprecedented scale," he said.

Facebook is also using humans. The company said this month it would hire 1,000 more people to review ads and ensure they meet its terms.

Schroepfer, 42, has been Facebook's CTO since 2013 and previously was director of engineering. He also sits on Facebook's board of directors.

Facebook has dealt with problematic user-generated content in the past, he said. "We don't want misuse of the platform, whether that's a foreign government trying to intercede in a democracy - that's obviously not OK - or whether it's an individual spewing hate or uploading pornography," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.