Senator Calls for Facebook to Release Russia-Related Election Ads

Mark Warner Richard Burr

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) called on Facebook to release thousands of Russia-linked political ads that it has turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Warner, the vice chair of the committee, told reporters that “at the end of the day it’s important that the public see these ads.”

Facebook has not made the ads public, but said that they have identified about 3,000 ads, primarily those that are issue-oriented rather than advocating for a specific candidate.

Warner and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, held a press conference to a packed room of journalists on Capitol Hill. The intent of the press conference was to give an update on the committee’s investigation.

Burr said that the committee would not make the Facebook ads public.

“We won’t release the documents provided to our committee, period,” he said, although he said they were “fine” if Facebook and other platforms did so themselves.

Facebook has indicated that it would not release the ads publicly. On Sept. 21, its general counsel Colin Stretch wrote in  blog post, “Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”

Attention in recent weeks has focused on the role of social media companies, after Facebook’s announcement that Russia-linked firms bought about 3,000 political ads from 2015 to 2017. Twitter last week said that it shut down more than 200 accounts linked to Russian sources that were also involved in placing ads on Facebook.

Warner said that representatives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google have been invited to testify at a Nov. 1 public hearing before the committee. A source at the company said that a representative will testify.

Burr said that the “subject matter of the ads seemed to be to create chaos in every group they could possibly find in America,” noting that the ads show that the Russians “were indiscriminate” in who they were helping.

But Warner said that the Russians used social media firms by creating false accounts that “would drive interest toward stories and groups to sow chaos and division in our country.”

“I fear if you add up all those things it was a decent rate of return,” Warner said.

Warner was initially concerned that social media companies “did not take this threat seriously enough,” but said that he has been seeing greater levels of cooperation.

There has been some speculation that there is pressure on Burr to conclude the investigation, particularly from Trump circles, but he said that “the issue of collusion is still open.”

The committee is still investigating whether the Russians had any coordination with members of Trump’s campaign, and he suggested that they were still examining just how Russians knew where to target social media spots. He also noted that their inquiry had “expanded slightly” beyond its original intent.

Burr said that he still holds hope of reaching a conclusion to their investigation by the end of the year and to make their findings public prior to the start of the primaries for 2018 midterm election races.

Burr and Warner warned that Russian sources are continuing to try to influence elections, not just in the U.S. but in other countries like France where recent national votes have been held.

The Russian efforts, Warner said, “did not end on Election Day in 2016.”

“The Russian intelligence service is determined and clever, and I recommend that every campaign and every election official take this very seriously,” Burr said.

Warner is working on legislation with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to require greater disclosure of the sources of digital political ads. He said that the requirements would be the “lightest touch possible, and similar to rules the rest of the media already have.”