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Facebook to send thousands of ads bought by Russian operatives to Congress

| Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, 12:06 a.m.
Conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, in San Jose, Calif. One of the congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has invited the tech giants Facebook, Twitter and the parent company of Google to appear for a public hearing on Nov. 1.
Conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, in San Jose, Calif. One of the congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has invited the tech giants Facebook, Twitter and the parent company of Google to appear for a public hearing on Nov. 1.

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook will release copies of 3,000 Russian-bought ads to congressional investigators Monday, executives said.

"The big picture is that we're stepping up tomorrow to help Congress understand foreign interference on the ad platform and to make improvements to the ad platform to enhance transparency," said Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice president for U.S. public policy, in an interview Sunday. "We're committed to doing our part to prevent this type of malicious interference."

The release is part of a widening government probe into how Russian operatives used Facebook, Twitter, Google and other technology platforms to widen fissures in the United States and spread disinformation during the 2016 campaign. Those companies have come under increasing pressure from Capitol Hill to investigate Russian meddling and are facing the possibility of new regulations that could affect their massive advertising businesses.

In addition to sharing the ads, Facebook also will provide information about which users those ads targeted, as well as the method of payment used by the Russian operatives, according to people familiar with the company's thinking, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private matters. The ads, which Facebook said were posted over a two-year period by accounts associated with a Kremlin-affiliated troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, were viewed by users tens of million of times, said people familiar with the investigation.

The company has said it would disclose more information about political ads on Facebook, but it acknowledged that many of the ads posted by the Russian operatives would not fall under its new transparency policy.

Going forward, Facebook will require every group that runs political ads on the social network to publicly post copies of all the ads they have purchased. This change, which Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier, is one that open government advocates have long clamored for. Those advocates have said it is unfair that, unlike traditional broadcasters, Facebook and other online companies are exempt from federal requirements that they disclose the political ads purchased on their platforms. Online companies are also exempt from requirements to share the amount of money spent on political ads, even as social media occupies a growing share of advertising budgets for political campaigns and political advertisers become some of the largest advertisers on Facebook.

The move also is a departure from Facebook's standard practice, in which Facebook users can only see ads and posts the company's software algorithm targets directly to them.

But the executives acknowledged that because of the way Facebook defines political ads, most of the ads that were posted by Russian agents during the U.S. election cycle would not be disclosed under the new policy.

Facebook considers an ad to be political only if it mentions a candidate. The company has said most of the ads bought by the 470 pages and accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency focused on social issues and did not mention specific candidates.

Many of the ads sought to sow divisions in U.S society and manipulate the tense political climate leading up to the 2016 election. The Post reported last week that ads promoting the group Black Lives Matter, for example, were targeted toward people who lived in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, two cities that have seen large protests against the police shootings of unarmed black people and have recruited members of Black Lives Matter. Ads were also shown to Facebook users who would be inclined to fear Black Lives Matter.

Twitter said Thursday that it had also shut down 201 accounts that were tied to the same Russian operatives who posted thousands of political ads on Facebook. Google is also conducting its own internal investigation into Russian meddling.

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