It was just last week when congressional investigators said they favored more transparency to the general public about exactly which Facebook posts a Kremlin-backed troll farm used to target Americans with anti-immigrant rhetoric—and even rallies on U.S. soil.
The lawmakers who lead the Capitol Hill committees charged with investigating Russia’s election meddling spoke out after Facebook declined to commit to sharing with Congress information about Russian government-backed posts, groups, and paid advertisements—including ones first reported by The Daily Beast.
On Thursday, Facebook announced that it plans to turn over more than 3,000 Russian-linked ads that appeared on the site to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and Congress is keeping information about the process close to the vest—at least for now.
On recess until Monday, members of the intelligence committees did not immediately answer questions from and turned down document requests from The Daily Beast on Thursday about the extent of information they had received from Facebook, and about their plans to share that information from the social media giant with the public.
In a brief address Thursday afternoon upon his return to work from parental leave, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed his dismay at what had occurred leading up to November’s presidential election, saying he did not want anyone to “use our tools to undermine democracy.”
Posts by groups called “Secured Borders” and “Being Patriotic” used Kremlin-backed money to push pro-Trump or anti-immigrant events from Florida to Pennsylvania to Idaho in 2016, as first reported by The Daily Beast.
Thursday’s announcement means the company’s stated plan is to share the ads in question with the congressional committees investigating Russian meddling, as well as with special counsel Robert Mueller, who reportedly subpoenaed information about them last week as part of his broader investigation focusing on the White House and former associates of President Trump.
“After an extensive legal and policy review, we’ve concluded that sharing the ads we’ve discovered with Congress, in a manner that is consistent with our obligations to protect user information, will help government authorities complete the vitally important work of assessing what happened in the 2016 election,” Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of policy and communications, wrote in an extensive post on Thursday.
Schrage justified the social media platform’s decision to not share the information with the public, writing: “Given the sensitive national security and privacy issues involved in this extraordinary investigation, we think Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”
A Facebook spokesman told The Daily Beast Thursday that the company had not yet shared the promised ads with congressional leadership, and that the information would be coming "as soon as we're able in the coming weeks."
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast last week that members of the public should be informed about whether they were targeted by Russians.
“We have been working with the social media companies to gain insights into what the Russians did and are doing,” Schiff said. “And I think it’s going to be important for them to come meet with our committee either in open or closed session.”
He went on to say that Congress has “an obligation” to disclose a “full report” to the nation when the investigation ends.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also called on Facebook last week to release the posts that were backed with a $100,000 ad buy.
“Senator Warner believes the American public has a right to know how Russian ads and other content were used on Facebook to influence the election,” a Warner spokesman told The Daily Beast last week. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday about a public release plan for the documents Facebook now says that it will in fact hand over.
Facebook has not actively released details of any of the posts or events to the public, nor has it said how many Kremlin-backed Facebook groups they’ve identified. (A few Kremlin-backed posts and groups covertly posting political content during last year’s election were first identified this year by outlets including The Daily Beast, then later acknowledged by Facebook after those press reports.) The propaganda groups identified so far purchased ads using rubles under the name of a known St. Petersburg troll farm.
Facebook said on Thursday it is conducting an internal investigation to determine if more covert Russian propaganda campaigns affected the 2016 election, or are still purchasing ads or pushing content today.
The posts, events and ads from the Kremlin-backed groups Secured Borders and Being Patriotic remained live on Facebook until last month, when the company identified and deleted the posts and groups associated with them. Archived caches of some of the posts remain at least temporarily available on Google and other web caching and archiving services.
Facebook’s new policy would require political posts—like the ones that the company now says it will hand over to congressional investigators—to identify the groups or individuals who have purchased the ad space in the future.
“Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in a nine-point address in a Facebook Live video Thursday. “We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”