Facebook struggles to contain Russia narrative

Facebook has been happy to keep congressional investigators focused on the Russian-bought online ads that helped sway voters in last year’s election — despite the many other ways that fake messages and bogus accounts spread on the dark side of social media.

But that may be about to end: Facebook, Twitter and Google are preparing for hearings this week at which lawmakers are expected to grill the companies about the broad reach that foreign actors achieved through fake accounts and deliberate misinformation, a topic that encompasses far more than the 3,000 paid political ads that Facebook disclosed last month.

Some lawmakers are already pressing for more details about so-called organic content, including unpaid posts from thousands of fake, automated and hijacked user accounts. Those questions could require Facebook to divulge more details about the priceless proprietary algorithms it uses to decide what messages its users see.

Top Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday for a wealth of additional data about Russian activity on its networks, including all organic content and ads “targeted to any part of the United States” by any users who “may be connected in some way to Russia.” The California senator also sent an extensive data request to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, similarly requested a meeting with Google, Facebook and Twitter to discuss both their advertising and broader content management policies. In a letter, Pallone said their platforms have become increasingly powerful and the companies have taken on a “quasi-governmental role” in determining what content is appropriate.

Ads are the “easier problem” to solve, a source close to the Senate probes told POLITICO. Spotlighting paid ads benefits Facebook because it limits the discussion to a relatively small slice of the possible malicious activity that Russia is believed to have engaged in on social media platforms, said a second source, a former Senate staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.



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