Facebook announced that it will share with Congress information about political ads it believes were purchased by Russia to sway last year's U.S. presidential election. The company disclosed the ads earlier this month, and at the time, it said that it planned to hand over info about them only to the Special Counsel investigating claims that Russia interfered with the election. Now it will also offer the data to congressional investigators.
The company revealed earlier this month that roughly 470 accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government organization, purchased thousands of politically charged ads between June 2015 and May 2017. Facebook said at the time that most of the ads didn't mention the election, and instead "appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum."
Those ads didn't have to mention the election to sway voters. Facebook's ad platform makes it easy to find groups of people who might be convinced to support a particular candidate's beliefs, or even just to vote in the election, without being directly told to do so. Given how much time people spend on the service—35 minutes per day on average, according to one study—the influence of those ads can't be underestimated.
That's why Facebook decided to share this information with Congress. The company said in its announcement:
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 in the 2016 election. That is an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries — and we want to do our part. Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.
This wasn't an easy decision to make. Facebook has to walk a fine line. If it didn't share this information with Congress, people may have accused it of putting its interests ahead of the integrity of presidential elections. Now that it does plan to share this data, Facebook users might be concerned about trusting the company with their personal info, especially because it's volunteering this data instead of being forced to share it.
In a status update, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared more information about how the company plans to manage political ads in the future. In addition to adding more staff dedicated to preserving election integrity, introducing a more rigorous political ad vetting process, and continuing its own investigation into this incident, Facebook will also work to make political ads more transparent. Zuckerberg said:
Going forward -- and perhaps the most important step we're taking -- we're going to make political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they're required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don't know if you're seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we're going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.
Transparency in political ads (and the other steps Facebook is taking) will become more and more important as time goes on. As we spend more time online, and as companies like Facebook introduce increasingly more capable ad targeting mechanisms, the potential of indirectly buying an election is likely to continue to rise. Facebook's responsibility to make sure its platform isn't abused will onlygrow.