Facebook is refusing to let the public see 3,000 election-related ads the Kremlin placed on its network during the 2016 presidential race – including posts suspected to have been part of what many U.S. lawmakers and the American intelligence community now agree was a campaign to drive voters to choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Despite increasing pressure from Democrats, the Silicon Valley giant is holding firm to its line that company policy allows Facebook to disclose “user content” only in response to a court-ordered warrant.
Given the unprecedented nature of the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. election – and the still-open investigations into whether Trump’s team colluded with Moscow – Democrats’ patience is running out.
"We really want to see them – the public does," Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said on NPR on Thursday. "We've learned that $100,000 was spent in rubles for ads during the 2016 election, and we haven't seen those ads."
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While investigators for the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have begun reviewing the ads, the panels’ rules bar their release.
But Facebook’s recent disclosure that it had turned up the material provided the latest confirmation of the extent and sophistication of Russia’s cyberattacks in what the Senate panel’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, described as a plan to sow chaos among American voters as they picked their next president.
Warner, who with colleagues is drafting legislation to curb similar Russian meddling in the 2018 elections, tweeted a call for Facebook to release the ads.
"At the end of the day it's important the public see these ads," he said a day earlier, sliding up next to the Senate committee’s chairman, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, to take the mic at a press briefing Wednesday.
Burr made plain that “we don’t make public documents provided to our committee … it’s not a practice that we’re going to get into.”
Facebook already has bent its no-disclosure policy by turning over the ads – without restrictions – to the intelligence committees, which are conducting parallel investigations into Russia’s cyber barrage aimed at helping land Trump in the White House. The company did so in the face of mounting political and public pressure.
Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, said in a recent blog post that it acted in the interest of assisting the inquiries that “go to the integrity of U.S. elections” without violating its pledge to protect the confidentiality of its advertisers. The company says it is investigating further to see if an internal inquiry missed any Russian purchases.
Critics say that paid political ads should not be labeled as user content.
Many observers feel the Russian Facebook ads, which began showing up in June 2015 and have been linked to a St. Petersburg “troll farm” — operations that spread propaganda worldwide via social media — represented early Kremlin experimentation with the platform. Warner has pressed Facebook to examine whether similar Russian-financed operations also used its platform.
Some Silicon Valley experts also suspect that the Russians may have used front companies to buy the ads to disguise their involvement.
“I want to know if we should be looking at what user accounts paid for the ads,” said Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, a House Intelligence Committee member. “It may be the case that (Russians) were using cutouts to pay for these ads. I think we should at least answer that question.”
The public sparring stems, in part, from the loose regulations governing political content shooting across the Internet via Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and other platforms. Almost overnight, these companies have mushroomed to play an outsize role in Americans’ daily life.
Many observers believe the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission should require social media to meet the same disclosure requirements for political ads that television and radio stations must adhere to.
Current law bars foreigners from contributing money or advertising on behalf of political candidates, but much of the political content on the Internet isn’t covered by laws governing political advertising on television and radio. All cable and satellite TV and radio outlets must now report to the FCC who is buying political ads and how much they’re spending.
Warner and Klobuchar are drafting a bill that would require disclosure of Internet ads, covering those that relate to any political issue of national importance.
Warner’s goal “is to be able to require disclosure even on ads that deal with social commentary or political issues without mentioning candidates at all,” his office said. That would cover ads such as inflammatory, Russian-financed ads during the 2016 campaign that referenced the “Black Lives Matter” movement spawned by police shootings of African-American men.
To emphasize the need for public disclosure, Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NPR Thursday that $1.4 billion was spent on online ads in last year's election.
The Federal Election Commission normally regulates election law, but the panel for years has been deadlocked along partisan lines. The commission recently voted 4-0 to reopen a public comment period on whether it should tighten disclosure requirements for political content on the Internet, an issue it has wrestled with for years.
“We have to be very careful not to suppress speech, but the Russians don’t have this freedom of speech to influence an election in our country,” Swalwell said. “That’s not afforded to them.”
His bill would convene an independent, bipartisan group of experts, much like the 9-11 commission, to look at how Russia attempted to influence the 2016 campaign through electronic means. It has unanimous backing among Democrats on his committee, but just two Republicans support it; more are needed before it can be considered.
“We are just kind of spinning our tires,” Swalwell said, “by having a politically gridlocked Congress try to get to the bottom of this and make the ballot box more secure in the next election.”