Facebook releases election ad content

Adam Earnheardt

Some two weeks after announcing the discovery of more than 3,000 ads addressing social and political issues central to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has released those ads to groups investigating election-tampering claims.

The ads ran on the Facebook’s platform between 2015 and 2017. According to Facebook attorney Colin Stretch, the ads appear to have originated from accounts associated with a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency.

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Russia’s Internet Research Agency created the ads to capitalize on racial and religious tensions leading up to the U.S. election. The agency creates and disseminates fake news that targets domestic and foreign groups and individuals.

In a 2015 New York Times Magazine expose, Adrian Chen wrote, “The [Internet Research Agency] had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities ... in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a ‘troll farm.’ The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes.”

Facebook decided it was time to provide information related to those ads, and the ad content, to the special counsel investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

However, pundits and concerned citizens implored Facebook to share the ad content more broadly. So, Stretch noted that Facebook would share the ads with congressional investigators.

“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,” Stretch said in an announcement posted to the Facebook newsroom.

This prompted another “Hard Questions” response from Facebook. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you might remember reading my review of Facebook’s “Hard Questions” about the online fight against terrorism, or how the platform handles a deceased user’s profile content.

Elliot Schrage, vice president of policy and communications, addressed “Hard Questions” on the fake news ad content probe, including why Facebook shared the ad content with the special counsel and Congress and not with the general public, and if they expect to find more ads from Russian or other foreign actors using fake accounts.

“When we’re looking for this type of abuse, we cast a wide net in trying to identify any activity that looks suspicious,” Schrage wrote in his “Hard Questions” post. “Bad actors are always working to use more sophisticated methods to ... cover their tracks.”

Of Facebook’s 1.28 billion daily active users, only 14 responded to Schrage’s post with comments and questions of their own.

Read Schrage’s post and user responses at newsroom.fb.com. Search for “Hard Questions.” You can send question suggestions to Facebook at hardquestions@fb.com.

Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.

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