(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

Facebook tells Congress that 126 million in US may have seen Russia-linked ads

WASHINGTON — As many as 126 million Americans may have seen divisive Russian-generated ads and posts on Facebook over the last two years, apparently part of a wide-ranging effort by Moscow to influence the 2016 presidential election, the social media company told Congress on Tuesday.

“Many of the ads and posts we’ve seen so far are deeply disturbing — seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in prepared remarks. “Coming from foreign actors using fake accounts, they are simply unacceptable.”

Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google have agreed to testify before three congressional committees this week after growing criticism from lawmakers about Moscow’s use of their social media platforms to secretly post misinformation or propaganda, ostensibly to help Donald Trump and harm his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The companies have briefed members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees on their findings in a closed-door meeting and provided copies of ads produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm known for using troll accounts to post on news sites.

But Tuesday’s hearing is the first public testimony by the companies on covert Russian use of their platforms to sway U.S. opinion.

Facebook has moved faster than Twitter and Google, both to close down the Russian-linked accounts and to disclose results of its internal investigation.

“This is not something we had seen before, and so we started an investigation that continues to this day,” Stretch said.

Like Facebook, Twitter and Google have given information to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading a criminal investigation into whether any of Trump’s aides coordinated with Russian authorities during or after the campaign. Trump has denied any collusion.

Use of social media was part of a broad effort by the Kremlin to influence voters in the presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies said in a January report. It concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the campaign to help Trump and to damage Clinton.

Roughly 29 million people were served content in their Facebook news feeds directly from the Internet Research Agency’s 80,000 posts from June 2015 to August 2017, according to Stretch.

But he said a far larger group — about 126 million people, or more than a third of the U.S. population — “may have been served” some type of Russian content from separate pages that posted the ads or linked to them.

The company said it also deleted roughly 170 Instagram accounts that posted about 120,000 pieces of Russian-linked content.

Posts traced back to the Internet Research Agency amounted to four-thousandths of one percent (0.004 percent) of content in Facebook’s news feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content, according to Stretch.

“Any amount is too much,” he said. “Those accounts and pages violated Facebook’s policies — which is why we removed them, as we do with all fake or malicious activity we find.”

Most of the ads focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race to immigration and gun rights, Facebook has said. Some encourage users to follow pages on these issues, which in turn produced posts on similarly charged subjects.

Twitter said last month that it had found around 200 accounts linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election and that that 22 accounts were closed after they were found to be linked to separate Facebook pages previously shown to have spread Russian-bought ads.

An additional 179 Twitter accounts were “related or linked” to the Facebook pages, Twitter said, adding that it closed “the ones we found in violation of our rules.”

Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not require users to submit personal information to set up an account. Company executives told lawmakers that made it harder to trace who was using the platform and their links to Moscow.

But Democratic lawmakers are likely to press Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel who is scheduled to testify Tuesday, on whether the company has investigated deeply enough into how its platform was used by Moscow.US

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