Facebook will provide to Congress the contents of 3,000 advertisements purchased by Russians during the 2016 US presidential race, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday following weeks of scrutiny surrounding the social network’s potential role in influencing elections.
The CEO said in a Facebook live video that the company would provide the controversial ads to government officials to support ongoing investigations in the US and as part of the social media company’s renewed efforts to protect the “integrity” of elections around the world.
“I wish I could tell you we’re going to be able to stop all interference, but that just wouldn’t be realistic,” Zuckerberg said. “There will always be bad actors.”
Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch said in a statement: “After an extensive legal and policy review, today we are announcing that we will also share these ads with congressional investigators. We believe it is vitally important that government authorities have the information they need to deliver to the public a full assessment of what happened in the 2016 election.”
Facebook disclosed earlier this month that an influence operation that appeared to be based in Russia had purchased $100,000 in ads to promote divisive political and social messages in a two-year period.
The adverts had spread controversial views on topics such as immigration, LGBT rights and race and had promoted 470 “inauthentic” pages and accounts that Facebook later suspended, according to the company. Facebook has said it was cooperating with related federal investigations, and the revelations have lended credence to the findings of US intelligence officials that Russia was involved in influencing the 2016 presidential election.
Concerns about the role of political ads on Facebook have not been limited to the US. A series of Conservative party attack ads in the UK were sent to voters in a key marginal constituency and relied on dummy Facebook accounts, the Guardian reported earlier this year.
The announcement comes one day after 20 Democratic senators and representatives wrote to the Federal Election Commission to urge it “develop new guidance” for advertising platforms “to prevent illicit foreign spending in US elections”.
In his speech, Zuckerberg said Facebook would also create a “new standard” for transparency in political advertising so advertisers must disclose which page paid for an ad and so that the public can visit advertisers’ pages and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on the site.
The CEO said the company had also been working to ensure the integrity of the forthcoming German election and had taken action against thousands of fake accounts.
“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” he said, but later added that Facebook would never be able to catch all “bad content” in the system. “Freedom means you don’t have to ask permission first, and that by default you can say what you want.”
The acknowledgment of Facebook’s possible role in affecting the elections is a major shift from the CEO’s initial statements on the subject. Zuckerberg had previously said that the idea that “fake news” on Facebook had played a role in the election of Donald Trump was “a pretty crazy idea”.
Facebook’s sales teams, however, have touted the company’s ability to “significantly shift voter intent” through ads.
Facebook has also faced repeated backlashes for its moderation and censorship of content amid global conflicts. As Myanmar’s military is facing international accusations of engaging in “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority, it was revealed this week that Facebook designated a Rohingya insurgent group a “dangerous organization” and ordered moderators to delete any content “by or praising” it.
Facebook also faced criticisms this month following revelations that the company allowed advertisers to target users interested in the topics of “Jew hater” and “How to burn Jews”. The company has since announced policy changes meant to tighten controls on ad tools.