Friday, 8 September 2017

Under fire, Facebook refuses to disclose political ads bought by Russian trolls.

Facebook, which acknowledged this week that it sold $100,000 worth of political ads in the last two years to accounts linked to a Russian troll factory, came under stinging criticism Thursday over its refusal to release copies of the ads to the public — or to congressional investigators.

After denying for months that any Russian entities purchased ads on Facebook during last year’s election, the social media giant has admitted that it belatedly discovered that some 470 phony accounts linked to a shadowy St. Petersburg media firm with ties to the Kremlin. The firm allegedly placed ads on highly charged issues in American politics, such as LGBT and gun rights — ads that in some cases explicitly mentioned Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election.

Facebook officials acknowledged the existence of the ads in a closed-door briefing for investigators for the House and Senate intelligence committees. The company showed what it described as some samples of the ads, but didn’t turn them over to investigators or release them to the media. Facebook said making the ads public would violate its strict privacy rules — even thought it acknowledges that most, if not all, of the accounts in question were registered under fake names and nonexistent entities and have since been removed from Facebook’s platform.

“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible, but there are certain restrictions on what we can disclose under our data policies,” a Facebook spokesman said in a response to a request from Yahoo News for copies of the ads.

That response brought a sharp retort Wednesday from campaign finance specialists and some congressional investigators, who noted that the exact wording of the questionable ads was critical. If the ads explicitly advocated or boosted one candidate or another, they would fall squarely under a federal law that bars foreign nationals from spending money to influence a U.S. election, making the individuals who paid for the ads — and any U.S. persons who might have assisted them — subject to criminal prosecution by the Justice Department and to heavy fines by the Federal Election Commission.

“I think this is shocking,” said Ron Fein, legal director for Free Speech for People, one of two campaign finance groups that have already filed complaints with the FEC seeking an investigation into Russian government spending on last year’s election. “Facebook has another thing coming if it thinks it can use its self-created privacy rules to prevent an honest accounting of what happened in the 2016 election,” Fein said.

Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who was chief counsel for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and one of the authors of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, said Facebook’s stand was especially puzzling given that the company was willing to show select samples of the ads to congressional investigators.

Potter said in an interview, “These advertisements were directed to the public, so they’ve already been put up publicly. And if they showed samples of the ads to investigators, they’ve already violated their confidentiality rules.”

The Facebook official declined to say whether special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the election, has requested copies of the ads, or if the company has provided them. “Because there are ongoing government investigations, we don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be commenting on the specifics of what we are sharing or with who. We’ve been in touch with a number of government officials, and will continue to engage with them,” the official said. (A spokesman for Mueller declined comment.)

But Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking minority member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the senator still has “lots of questions” for Facebook, including “whether and how pages and groups may have been used to spread disinformation during the election, both through ads and user content.” She said Warner is seeking a committee hearing on the issue and left open the possibility that the senator would seek a subpoena for the material.

A possibly related effort to plant fake user content on Facebook was highlighted in a New York Times article posted Thursday that, as part of a collaboration with the cybersecurity firm FireEye, identified fake users such as a man who claimed to live in Harrisburg, Pa., and posted a Facebook message pointing users to a website, DCLeaks, that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded was a Russian front. “These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the U.S.,” the apparently nonexistent Pennsylvanian wrote on June 8, 2016. “Visit #DCLeaks website. It’s really interesting!”

By Michael Isikoff.

Full story at Yahoo News.

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