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WASHINGTON — A campaign finance reform group, accusing Facebook of being used as an “accomplice” in a Russian influence scheme, is calling on company chairman Mark Zuckerberg to reverse his position and publicly release “secretly-sponsored” Russian political ads that ran on its platform during last year’s presidential election.
“Facebook was secretly paid to host illegal political ads as part of an illegal foreign influence effort,” said the letter to Zuckerberg from Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
“We are not aware of any federal law that would prohibit Facebook from making these ads public,” the letter to Zuckerberg continued. “[B]y hosting these secretly-sponsored Russian political ads, Facebook appears to have been used as an accomplice in a foreign government’s effort to undermine democratic self-governance in the United States. Therefore, we ask you, as the head of a company that has used its platform to promote democratic engagement, to be transparent about how foreign actors used that same platform to undermine our democracy.”
Asked for comment, a Facebook spokesman said late Tuesday: “Federal law and ongoing investigations limit what we can share publicly.”
The letter is the latest indication that the social media giant will face continuing criticism for selling targeted political ads to Russian-backed organizations during last year’s election. In a podcast discussing her just-released campaign memoir, Hillary Clinton said Donald Trump’s campaign “was aided and abetted by the Russians and the role Facebook and other platforms played.”
After denying for months that any Russian ads had run on its platform, the company disclosed last week that it had belatedly identified 470 fake accounts that were tied to a notorious Russian “troll farm” in St. Petersburg. The phony accounts purchased more than 3,000 political ads at a cost of at least $100,000 between June 2015 and May 2017.
Sources familiar with Facebook’s handling of the matter say the company was tipped off to the Russian political ads by U.S. officials last spring, and it has since turned over copies to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
But as Yahoo News reported, Facebook has declined to share copies of the ads with congressional investigators — or to release them publicly, saying that it is prevented from doing so by its own internal policies meant to protect the privacy of its users.
That position was widely ridiculed last week on Twitter, in light of Facebook’s admission that the user accounts it is protecting were created under phony names and have since been taken down. And it has elicited criticism from members of Congress and others who say the public has a right to know the extent of last year’s Russian efforts — and the degree to which the company may have abetted, even if unknowingly, violations of campaign laws barring foreign money from being used to influence American elections.
“The American public has a right know how Russian ads were used on Facebook to influence the election,” said Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. She said Warner is now considering legislation that would require the same kinds of disclosure for social media ads as those that apply to campaign ads broadcast on radio and television. Those laws mandate that broadcast campaign ads be clearly labeled as such and require them to identify the candidate or group that is paying for them.
The controversy over Facebook’s transparency on the issue comes as new evidence mounts about how extensive the secret Russian ad campaign on Facebook actually was. The $100,000 figure to purchase the ads may seem small by the standards of a presidential campaign. But the Daily Beast reported last week that the ads reached at least 23 million users — and as many as 70 million. The exact number depends on how Facebook’s algorithms distributed them in users’ news feeds — something only Facebook can answer.
The issue also could conceivably expose Facebook to formal complaints that it was complicit in violating federal campaign disclosure laws. According to Potter’s letter, Facebook in 2011 had asked the FEC to exempt political ads run on its platform from the standard disclaimer and disclosure requirements for radio, TV and newspaper ads. Facebook argued it was impractical for the company to comply with the regulations, saying Internet ads should fall under an exemption for minor items, like campaign buttons or bumper stickers. But the FEC deadlocked, 3-3, on the question, so the company’s request was turned down.
Because the commission did not grant the request, “Facebook therefore should have ensured that users who viewed the ads could know who paid for the communication,” Potter wrote in his letter.