Facebook admitted that 10 million people saw ads that a Russia-linked entity bought on the social network in an attempt to influence the 2016 US presidential election and sow discord in its aftermath. The number was revealed by Facebook in a blog post Monday.
In the post, Facebook VP of Policy and Communications Elliot Schrage said that the majority of the ads were displayed after the election had concluded. "44% of the ads were seen before the US election on November 8, 2016; 56% were seen after the election," he said.
The information provides the public with further detail about Russian efforts to manipulate US politics on Facebook. The company, which has been asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify publicly about such efforts taking place on its platform, appears to be doing everything in its power to show it knows what took place and is ready for similar instances in the future. It's a crisis for Facebook, which faces an implied threat of regulation should its claims of progress not satisfy members of Congress.
Though Facebook's revelation that 10 million people saw the ads was smaller than estimates, which ranged from 25 million to 70 million, it's still a significant number. Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and many more states all have populations under 10 million.
And though reaching 10 million people with ads is only one point in dozens of times people come in contact with campaign messaging during an election — from debates to digital ads to TV commercials — the 2016 US presidential election was won with thin margins, so the ad buy shouldn't be quickly discounted.
There could be more Russia-linked ads that Facebook has not yet discovered, Schrage said. "We’re still looking for abuse and bad actors on our platform — our internal investigation continues."
Some ads were paid for with Russian currency, but Schrage said that wasn't a major red flag. "Currency alone isn’t a good way of identifying suspicious activity, because the overwhelming majority of advertisers who pay in Russian currency, like the overwhelming majority of people who access Facebook from Russia, aren’t doing anything wrong."
Schrage ended the post with a declaration of Facebook's values, continuing a line of Facebook public statements that seek to convince the public that the company is a benevolent administrator of the public dialogue.
"We strongly believe in free and fair elections," Schrage said. "We strongly believe in free speech and robust public debate. We strongly believe free speech and free elections depend upon each other. We’re fast developing both standards and greater safeguards against malicious and illegal interference on our platform. We’re strengthening our advertising policies to minimize and even eliminate abuse. Why? Because we are mindful of the importance and special place political speech occupies in protecting both democracy and civil society."
The statement seemed to be directed at Congress, which later this month and in early November will evaluate whether Facebook's actions are enough to ward off regulation.
Facebook initially told BuzzFeed News that Schrage's breakdown of ads run before and after the election referred the number of different ad images displayed, not the amount of times they were shown. Facebook later said that information was incorrect, and it is the opposite.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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