U.S. Senators Grill Facebook Over Election Ads

U.S. senators grilled Facebook’s chief lawyer this week on why the company did not catch 2016 election ads bought using Russian money, and why its investigation took so long.

According to a Reuters news report, Democrats and Republicans at the Senate crime subcommittee hearing questioned Colin Stretch, Facebook’s vice president and general counsel, for almost two hours.

“In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There are signals we missed,” Stretch said. He also called the Russia-based ads “reprehensible” for their political divisiveness.

Facebook, in a series of disclosures over two months, has said that people in Russia bought at least 3,000 U.S. political ads and published another 80,000 Facebook posts that were seen by as many as 126 million Americans over two years.

“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem?” Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked.

Stretch responded that, when U.S. spy agencies alleged in January that Russians meddled in last year’s election, “we weren’t sitting around.” The company launched an investigation and reported the results.

Facebook has also announced steps to change how it treats political ads, revealing it is hiring 1,000 more people to review ads, compiling a publicly searchable archive of political ads beginning next year and requiring more information about the identity of election advertisers.

The company also announced that it is doubling the number of people it has working on issues related to safety and security, expected to grow to 20,000 by the end of next year.

Republican Senator John Kennedy expressed doubts, though, that Facebook could stop people overseas from buying U.S. election ads. United States law currently bars election spending by non-Americans.

“You’ve got five million advertisers and you’re going to tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of all those advertisements?” Kennedy asked Stretch.

With that in mind, there is talk that legislation that would extend rules governing political advertising on television, radio and satellite could also cover social media. As PYMNTS reported earlier this week, Facebook has become the unregulated platform from which 45 percent of the website’s users – in the U.S., that’s two-thirds of all Americans, or some 90 million people – say they get their news and information.

In an attempt to possibly preempt regulation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined steps last week to create “more transparency” around the political ads that run on Facebook, which includes labeling them as political ads and requiring that the identity of the sponsor be disclosed, much like it is today for politically-driven TV and radio ads.