Black Lawmaker Pressures Facebook Over Racially Divisive Russian Ads
WASHINGTON — Members of the Congressional Black Caucus pressured Facebook this week to seriously examine how the site allowed Russian operatives to use advertising to target Black Lives Matter and sow racial divisions ahead of last year’s election.
In a letter Tuesday to the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, Representative Robin Kelly, Democrat of Illinois, wrote that Russian-backed Facebook pages promoted “incendiary anti-immigrant rallies, targeted the Black Lives Matter movement and focused attentions on critical election swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan.”
Russian groups backed by the country’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, paid Facebook to influence voters last year by “purchasing ads designed to inflame and exploit racial, political and economic rifts in the U.S.,” Ms. Kelly wrote.
Ms. Kelly’s letter follows weeks of criticism of Facebook over its disclosure that Russians used fake pages and advertisements, designed to look like the work of American activists, to spread inflammatory messages during and since the presidential campaign. The company had long denied that Russians had exploited its system, before reversing course on Sept. 6.
Now, Ms. Kelly said, she wants insight into how Facebook examines prospective advertisers, how it vets ads placed by foreign authorities and the “true cost and scope of Russia advertisements placed during the 2016 election cycle.”
“It is my belief that Facebook cannot be the Trojan horse through which America’s vulnerabilities are exploited,” Ms. Kelly wrote in the letter. “With the information we now have in tow, you have a moral responsibility to rigorously assess your advertising policies and implement reforms that ensure that malicious actors — both foreign and domestic — do not pervert your site to promote a divisive and destabilizing agenda.”
A spokesman for Facebook confirmed that the company received Ms. Kelly’s letter and that it was in communication with her office.
Ms. Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on information technology, and several of her colleagues contacted Facebook seven days after President Trump’s win in November to express deep concerns about Facebook allowing advertisers to exclude and target ethnic groups.
Tuesday’s letter ratchets up their concerns as several social networking sites face scrutiny from Congress and as other Congressional Black Caucus members such as Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, say they worry about Facebook’s role in the election and in allowing users to discriminate online.
Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, noted that for many African-Americans, the incident raised memories of past government-orchestrated espionage and intimidation efforts, such as the F.B.I.’s surveillance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Historically, those in the struggle for civil rights have not only been forced to confront institutions of racism in our society, they have also been forced to confront attacks and espionage activity from individual actors and organizations in and outside of government,” he said. “It is my hope that our tech community takes this matter seriously, is forthright with the special counsel and Congress, and does everything it can to make sure it is not manipulated like this again.”
Last week, Facebook said it was turning over more than 3,000 Russia-linked advertisements to Congress. Many of those ads, like those on the National Football League protest issue, targeted divisions in American society, sending conflicting messages to different users segmented by political and racial characteristics.
Mr. Zuckerberg addressed his network of more than 2 billion people about the social network’s role in democracies this week and expressed regret for initially dismissing his company’s potential impact on the 2016 election.
“We will continue to work to build a community for all people,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “We will do our part to defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections. We’ll keep working to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, and to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and force for good in democracy.”
Twitter, another social network targeted by Russian operatives, planned to brief staff members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on Thursday for their investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The New York Times reported this month on evidence of Russian operators creating hundreds or thousands of fake Twitter accounts to flood the network with anti-Clinton messages during the campaign. The cybersecurity company FireEye identified what it called “warlists” of accounts linked to Russian intelligence that sometimes spewed messages like #WarAgainstDemocrats several times a minute.
The House Intelligence Committee also announced on Wednesday that it would hold a public hearing on the matter of Russian influence next month, and a Senate aide said Facebook, Twitter and Google officials have been invited to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 1.