Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team just got a new source of information as they investigate Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election: Facebook data. In a rare decision against its usual protocol of user confidentiality, Facebook will hand over its Russia-linked political ads to Congress.
The social media network became another player in the ongoing United States-Russia election saga after disclosing it ran more than 3,000 ads linked to inauthentic accounts allegedly associated with the Russian company Internet Research Agency. The ads, which promoted social and political topics, ran in the United States between 2015 and 2017. The St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency has been described as Russia's "troll army" for their online operations to control public opinion on behalf of the Kremlin, according to BuzzFeed, which received leaked emails from a Russian hacker.
Facebook previously said, out of privacy concerns and federal law, it did not provide investigators with user account information connected to the ads. After legal and policy review, the tech giant announced on Thursday it would cooperate with House and Senate intelligence committees.
"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," reads a statement on Facebook's corporate newsroom.
Striking the balance between protecting user privacy and the complying with law enforcement can be tricky, as internet companies get blamed for what data they do or don't share. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Facebook his company vowed to protect "election integrity" and would promise more transparency around political ads. Facebook will not, however, release to the public information about who buys digital political ads. The company cited national security and federal laws limiting the disclosure of account information as the reasons why.
Instead the company plans to implement other changes for advertisers, ad buyers, and its users: In the coming months, Facebook will require advertisers to disclose which page paid for an ad. It will also let Facebook users visit an advertiser's page and see what ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook.
Facebook will also conduct its own probe into the alleged Russian election meddling, alongside its cooperation with federal investigators, Zuckerberg said in his Facebook post. Aside from the 2016 U.S. election, it'll work to make sure operatives have not compromised the Sept. 24 German election, as well, he added. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is running for reelection, has already been a target of pro-Kremlin propaganda outlets. Facebook's latest proactive involvement marks a shift in Zuckerberg, who once said the idea of fake news influencing the 2016 election was a "pretty crazy idea."
In a separate post from Elliot Schrage, vice president of policy and communications at Facebook, the company answered questions related to the Russian ads. Facebook did not know the Russia-linked ads were part of a possible Kremlin operation as the time of purchase because the users uploaded the ads using Facebook's self-service tool, Schrage wrote. Facebook also said it is possible there are more ads from other fake accounts.
"Using ads and other messaging to affect political discourse has become a common part of the cybersecurity arsenal for organized, advanced actors," Schrage said. "This means all online platforms will need to address this issue, and get smarter about how to address it, now and in the future."
Facebook makes a profit by selling advertisements and sharing intimate information that its users provide. To control the influence of foreign powers on social media would be a massive undertaking. To what extent internet companies should get involved in politics is another complex question Facebook will have to answer.