Federal investigators believe Facebook’s servers contain a wealth of hard data that could shed light on the central question of American politics in 2017: Did Donald Trump’s campaign collude with the Russian government?
But Facebook told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that “we aren't well placed to know if something like coordination occurred” between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The social media giant then declined to commit to releasing information about Russian government-backed Facebook posts, groups, and paid advertisements to the users who encountered them.
That means Facebook users may never know if they were targeted by foreign propaganda campaigns during the 2016 election, or if those campaigns are still filling up their newsfeeds today.
Facebook’s comments come one week after the company confirmed it unknowingly sold 3,000 ads to a Russian propaganda farm. Facebook groups emanating from the St. Petersburg-based operation were outed by an investigation in the Russian magazine RBC in March.
Facebook said the company is conducting an internal review, but repeatedly declined to say what is being analyzed in the review and if it will ever be made public. The representative cited the multiple inquiries surrounding Trump as a reason preventing the company from elaborating.
The representative said that Facebook’s current focus is full cooperation with the investigations into Trump and Russia occurring in the Senate, House and special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. As for whether Facebook will make a version of the internal review public, the representative said he couldn’t “speculate.”
Some of the congressional investigators themselves urged Facebook to make their audit public at an appropriate point, according to interviews with The Daily Beast on Wednesday. A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate investigation, said the Senator backs a public disclosure, as does Warner’s counterpart in the House, Adam Schiff.
“Whether that comes from our report or from Facebook directly, I do think it’s going to be important for us to make the public aware so that we can protect ourselves,” Schiff told The Daily Beast.
“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,” said Warner spokesperson Rachel Cohen.
Warner has said the company’s disclosure is only the “tip of the iceberg.” On Tuesday, he and Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr indicated that even after panel investigators interviewed company representatives, they want a public hearing featuring testimony from Facebook.
That pressure increased after the company acknowledged to The Daily Beast on Monday that some of the 470 known Russian propaganda accounts had instructed visitors, who believed they were seeing American-generated political messages, to attend a real-life rally against immigrants and Muslims in Idaho last August. Facebook says it deactivated those propaganda accounts after the review, but declined to comment on any efforts at identifying government-backed disinformation accounts in the future.
Facebook’s evolving understanding of what occurred on its platform has raised further questions from investigators. As late as mid-July, Facebook told Wired’s Issie Lapowsky that it found no evidence of Russian entities purchasing election-time Facebook ads. That stance collapsed on September 6th, when chief security officer Alex Stamos revealed that the company found the 470 inauthentic accounts pushing about 3,000 inflammatory advertisements in 2017.
The representative who spoke to the Daily Beast demurred on clarifying the timeline of Facebook’s internal review, beyond indicating the review kicked off in the early summer. But he said Facebook found the Russian propaganda “after that time period” when it gave the July statement to Wired.
“At the time we said that there was no evidence of Russian advertising, that reflected what we had found,” the representative said.
House investigators have said they want to interview Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign digital director who worked with Facebook on voter targeting. While the company has not said much in public about its cooperation with Parscale’s shop, the Facebook representative described its relationship with the digital campaign as routine.
“Facebook provided support and guidance to the Trump campaign about the use of the platform and running ads on Facebook. Sometimes this might have happened at the office in San Antonio and sometimes it might have been remotely,” the representative said.
“But it was the same type of support as was afforded to the Clinton campaign, and is similar to what was and what would have been offered to other similarly situated political and nonpolitical clients.”
Advocacy groups on social media have urged Facebook to release the posts the company identified as Russian propaganda and to notify users who may have been targeted with the ads and posts.
Sleeping Giants, an anonymous activist group that convinced 2,600 advertisers to leave the far-right news site Breitbart through a sustained social media campaign, has pushed Facebook to reveal more information about targeted propaganda in the past week.
“They can no longer hide behind the idea that they're just pipes delivering us information,” a spokesman for the group told The Daily Beast. “If they're going to run our lives while taking our cash and using our personal information, the very least they could do is give us some transparency into how they're doing it.”
Facebook would not commit to telling The Daily Beast about any part of the internal review, including if it was looking to discover more covert propaganda operations than the ones it revealed were taken down last week. The shuttered Russian pages posing as right-wing American political organizations, like a Facebook group called “Secured Borders,” were discovered by Russian press months ago, and not by Facebook itself.
"We have conducted an internal review. But we are not in the best position to speak to the coordination question (between Russia and the Trump campaign). And we're unable to get specific about the parameters of the review, due to the ongoing investigations,” the Facebook representative said.
That stance runs counter to ones held by critics and analysts of the tech giant, who say that Facebook’s extensive, proprietary data targeting methods make it perhaps the best positioned entity in the world to determine if Russian propaganda intermingled with voter data used or acquired by the Trump campaign.
On Tuesday, Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who has worked extensively on news partnerships with Facebook in the past, wrote that “Facebook should probably ease out of the business of bland background statements and awkward photo ops, and start worrying about congressional testimony.”
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russia’s influence campaign, said he understands Facebook position that the company may not have all the answers, but added that the social media juggernaut likely presents the best trove of big data available.
“It would be hard for them to make the connection, since you don’t have any more clarity about what’s a super PAC, what’s an individual, and what’s a Trump campaign post,” said Watts. “But the closest you’ll ever get is Facebook.”
Watts said Facebook’s big advantage for investigators is ad purchasing data, which is traceable through the site’s back end.
“I’ve seen people get worked up about Twitter, but Twitter’s not going to be able to show you who viewed ads and paid for them,” he said.
These are all questions Facebook is likely to have to answer in front of a public Senate panel. Thus far, Senate and House staff investigators have seen behind-closed-doors examples of the propaganda posted to Facebook, but the company didn’t leave them with the staffers. Legislators have only been briefed on what staff saw, rather than seeing for themselves.
While acknowledging the Russian propaganda, chief security officer Stamos, who leads the company unit that deals with data authenticity, said that Facebook is concerned with “protecting the integrity of civic discourse” and would roll out new software solutions to ensure that the posts users see are what the authors say it is.
The representative would not say if users will be alerted to inauthentic content that slipped through.
“It’s just not something I can speculate on right now,” the representative said.
– Additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio