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Facebook Sold Political Ads to Russian Sources During 2016 Election

WASHINGTON. D.C. — Facebook said that it has discovered that Russian-linked sources paid $100,000 for thousands of political ads over the past two years, and has shared that information with authorities investigating Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election.

The Washington Post first reported on Wednesday that Facebook had informed congressional investigators that the ad sales were linked to a Russian “troll” farm known for spreading propaganda. The entity was called the Internet Research Agency.

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, wrote in a blog post that “in reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”

He said that a majority of the ads did not specify any candidate, but “the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

“One question that has emerged is whether there’s a connection between the Russian efforts and ads purchased on Facebook,” he wrote. “These are serious claims and we’ve been reviewing a range of activity on our platform to help understand what happened.”

He outlined a series of steps the company has been taking to detect fake accounts and to detect inauthentic pages. That includes “reducing stories from sources that consistently post clickbait headlines that withhold and exaggerate information.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees are examining Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election, and whether any Trump campaign officials coordinated with Russian sources.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg tried to address the spread of so-called “fake news” on the platform during the election. In a May white paper, the company outlined steps that they’re taking to try to limit the promotion of such false information.

Facebook’s revelation could also trigger calls for greater public disclosure of the sources of political spending. Broadcasters are required to disclose records of their political ad sales.

Federal law prohibits foreign nationals from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States. But the Federal Election Commission has allowed foreign sources to spend on ads tied to particular issues.

Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at the campaign and election reform group Issue One, said via email that “the fact that these ads are not public means it is impossible to determine if they threaded the needle described by the FEC.  The fact that there are apparently ads that mention candidates directly seems to be a violation but again one would need to see the ad.”

She said that if there was enough evidence of a violation, the FEC could open and investigation and subpoena the ads, and the Department of Justice also could have a role in a probe.

McGehee said that as political advertising shifts to digital platforms, it is “an open question as to whether the law can keep up with these developments.

“But if there is a wide spread perception that new media are providing effective means for foreign government to spend money aimed at U.S. elections, there will be a greater willingness to consider new approaches,” such as disclosure and tighter regulations, she said.

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