Facebook Will Tell You Whether You Saw Russian Propaganda During The 2016 Election

Jaap Arriens/SIPPL Sipa USA
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Facebook has announced a new policy for the end of the year: When it comes to Russia, digital ads serve you.

The social media behemoth announced on its blog today that it is in the process of building a tool to allow users to see which posts from the Russian Internet Research Agency—now the Federal News Agency, or FAN—appeared in their feeds during the 20-month period between January 2015 and August 2016.

The move is part of the company’s “ongoing effort to protect our platforms and the people who use them from bad actors who try to undermine our democracy,” wrote a Facebook spokesperson in an un-bylined post.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, called the announcement “a very positive step” in the wake of multiple tense hearings on Capitol Hill where lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were grilled about their role influencing the 2016 election. But Schiff added that he and his fellow lawmakers “look forward to additional steps by the companies to improve transparency with respect to Russian abuse of their platforms, and urge them to furnish a joint report on how Russia used these platforms to sow discord and influence the election.”

The use of domestic social media companies to inflame distrust in the American government during the U.S. 2016 election, and specifically to promote Donald Trump, remains unheard-of in terms of pure scale. In January 2015, the first month the Russian ad-tracking tool will cover, more than half of the country had an account, according the USA Today.

Facebook’s new tool for viewing propaganda ads is the latest salvo in a damage-control campaign by the company that kicked into high gear last month, when they were caught redacting references to Russia from an April report on the way its platform was manipulated during the election. Since then, the company has admitted that its estimates for the number of users who were shown Russian-backed ads skewed low, and lawmakers have proposed regulation in response.

Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress have publicly criticized the tech companies’ laissez-faire attitude toward compliance with political ad laws. In a Senate hearing earlier in November, a Google executive memorably refused to guarantee that his company would not accept payment for political ads in rubles.

Democratic senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have co-sponsored a bill along with John McCain (R-A) called the “Honest Ads Act,” which would mandate significantly more disclosure by companies that sell digital advertising.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.
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