The same week Mark Zuckerberg delivered his live video remarks about Russian election interference on Facebook, he picked up the phone and called Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
At one point during the nearly 30-minute conversation, Schiff asked why Facebook took so long to find the $100,000 in ads a Kremlin-linked entity bought in an effort to disrupt the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath. Zuckerberg’s answer apparently did not fully satisfy, and Schiff told BuzzFeed News he plans to follow up.
The Russian ad scandal has captured lawmakers' attention in a way Facebook’s previous political crises — from allegations of bias in its Trending column to its role in spreading fake news — have not. It has crystallized a trio of individual fears — Facebook is too big, has too much influence, and cannot effectively monitor itself — into one big expression of all of them.
And now, with Congress scrutinizing it and the world watching, Facebook is scrambling to contain an metastasizing crisis that has tarnished its public image and conjured the threat of possible government regulation. In November, the House Intelligence Committee, of which Schiff is a key part, plans to hold an open hearing to discuss Russian election interference. And Schiff would very much like to see Facebook there. “We have an interest in having them come into our committee,” he said.
Schiff’s not alone in that interest. The Senate Intelligence Committee also named Facebook as one of the companies it wants to question when it holds its own open hearing on election interference in November. And conversations with members of that committee make clear that Facebook won’t be let off the hook easy there either. “I want them to be honest and forthcoming. Show us everything,” committee member Senator Joe Manchin told BuzzFeed News. Sens. Mark Warner and Richard Burr echoed that sentiment. “We want the details,” said Warner, the committee's vice chairman.
“The growth of these social media platforms has been so fast and furious that they are struggling to keep up with how [they] can be misused,” Schiff said. “The open hearing will give us a chance to explore how seriously these companies are taking this problem, and what steps they’re going to implement to protect the country and their users in the future.”
Over the next month and likely beyond it, Congress will seek answers to three main questions: whether the Russian ad buy in question reveals collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, whether it influenced the election, and, critically, what happens next to Facebook. It is an unprecedented crisis for Facebook, now extending to Instagram as well, with no end in sight. As Schiff put it, “This is going to be part of an ongoing conversation and oversight by the Congress.”
A worst-case scenario for Facebook: Congress uncovers evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in the ad buy details. This would inextricably tie the company to foreign manipulation of a US election, and provide an easy rationale and talking point for government regulation. It would certainly keep Facebook’s name in the headlines as an example of a tech giant that used its power to lobby against disclosure rules, only to fail to monitor illegal, democracy-shaking activity within its walls.
At a press conference Wednesday, Sens. Burr and Warner declined to say whether the 3,000 ads and associated targeting data given to them by Facebook contained evidence of collusion. "I’m not going to even discuss initial findings because we haven’t any,” Burr said on the subject of collusion. Their subsequent remarks indicated a careful examination is ahead, one that will extend at least until their public hearing with Facebook and others scheduled for November.
While the two senators provided little detail on what they’d be looking for in the ad buy details, Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat member of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke to BuzzFeed News at length about what he’d like to examine, providing insight into the thinking inside Congress.
Swalwell first said he wants to look at the ad creative, or the images the Russians paid to promote on Facebook, with a specific focus on whether those images appeared elsewhere on the Facebook platform. “It would be very illuminating to know if there are any duplicates that are not Russian-sourced,” he said. “Who are these people and why are they paying for an ad that is identical to a Russian-sourced ad?”
He also plans to examine the ads for language, looking at the possibility that an American assisted in creating the messaging. “If a foreigner is trying to communicate a message in English on the topic of politics, there could be some lost-in-translation typos or idioms that they may misuse,” he said. “What I would look for — was the copy assisted by a US person?"
Ad targeting is also an area of interest. Swalwell said he’d like to see if similar data was uploaded into Facebook by the Trump campaign and the Russians. “We want to compare analytics of content the Russians used, who they targeted to, to content that the Trump campaign was using, and who they targeted it to,” he said. “And if there’s a crossover, find out if it’s just a coincidence… or if it was more than that.”
Swalwell told BuzzFeed News that he is in favor of forming an independent, bipartisan commission to review this information, and the full scope of Russian election interference, on a full-time basis with a dedicated staff. Even with these resources, it would likely take extreme sloppiness on the part of the Russians and the Trump campaign for the commission to find clear evidence of collusion in the ad buy details. “The smoking gun would be audiences that [the Trump campaign] had created for [the Russians] and then pushed to them,” Zac Moffatt, digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told BuzzFeed News. “I think the likelihood that that happened is completely nonexistent.”
Earlier this week, Facebook shared critical information that Congress could use to help make that determination.
In a post on its Hard Questions blog Tuesday, Facebook published a number of stats that suggest the $100,000 Russian ad buy had less influence on the election than some fear. In its post, Facebook said the Russian ads were shown to some 10 million people — far less than some other estimates that ranged up to 75 million viewers. The company also noted that only 44% of the ads ran before the election.
Moffatt, Romney’s former digital director, said he thinks the Russian ads were a tiny sliver of the overall campaign advertising pie.
“I can promise you, in 2012 for Governor Romney, we were definitely spending more than $150,000 a day,” Moffatt said. “If you said to me they spent $150,000 in one state, in one district, even then I’d be like — okay. But when you take it across the whole country… There’s not that much there.”
Moffatt said he didn’t believe even $1 million strategically spent on Facebook could flip an election, given that each campaign spends hundreds of millions on advertising and receives many billions more in free publicity. “I don’t understand how, of all these other things, why this would be the one thing that people think would make the difference as it goes through,” he said. “I think this is people looking for a silver bullet that explains something that they can’t understand how it happened.”
Members of Congress will readily admit that it’s impossible to ascertain the true impact of the Russians’ $100,000 ad spend. “We’ll never know what the effect was as far as how many minds were changed,” Rep. Swalwell said. “In an election that is as close as this one, could it be determinative? We’ll never know,” Rep. Schiff said, speaking of the Russians’ influence as a whole.
But as Sen. Warner put it at the Wednesday press conference, digital platforms are becoming increasingly important in the political process, as evidenced by a 700% jump in digital political ad spending from 2012 to 2016, with a similar or larger jump forecast for 2020.
In such an environment, Congress sees a duty to ensure something similar to the Russian ad buy won't take place again, especially not at a larger scale. At the very least, it’s likely to be watching Facebook closely over the next few years. “There were clear, coordinated, sophisticated efforts that Russia ran in this last campaign that we have to catch next time,” Rep. Swalwell said. “A $100,000 ad buy for 3,000 ads — we have to catch that next time.”
What Happens Now
Over the past two weeks, Facebook has introduced a number of advertising reforms. It’s effectively ended the practice of “dark advertising,” or targeted ads not visible to the public, by promising to reveal all ads run on its platform on the pages that pay for them. It’s told political advertisers they must “confirm the business or organization they represent” before they can buy ads. And it’s said it will hire an additional 1,000 people to bolster its ad review operation. Still, that hasn’t been enough to satisfy Congress.
Within the next few weeks, Sen. Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar are expected to introduce a piece of legislation that would require Facebook and other major online platforms to publicly disclose political ad spending on their platforms. The bill will be the first piece of legislation to respond to Facebook’s Russia ads crisis, and others may follow.
"We are open to reviewing any reasonable congressional proposals," a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
"They’re going to need to make concessions,” Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s Facebook making unilateral decisions about how this is going to work on its platform. That’s not how the United States of America works."
The Warner-Klobuchar act is an ominous sign for Facebook as Congress’s probe extends beyond advertising. On Wednesday, Sen. Warner made clear that he was interested in examining Facebook’s Trending column as well. People have a right to know whether the stories appearing in Trending are there because they’re popular with real people, he said, or with bots or foreign actors operating under false identities.
The Trending column was the subject of an earlier controversy for Facebook, when former Trending curators accused their colleagues of anti-conservative bias. The column largely escaped the attention of Congress back then, but it’s top of mind now that lawmakers are examining Facebook’s influence and vulnerabilities.
On Friday, Facebook admitted that the scope of the Russian ad buy extended to Instagram as well, yet another revelation in a crisis that is snowballing. As he spoke in a Capitol building hallway, Rep. Schiff was clear on his probe’s status. “I think this is the beginning,” he said. “Certainly not the end.” ●
Emma Loop contributed to this report.
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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