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Facebook plans big overhaul of political ads after criticism

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Facebook, under fire over Russia’s use of its social network to spread pre-election discord in the US last year, pledged a sweeping overhaul of political advertising and said it will give Congress all the evidence it has on the campaigns.

More than 3 000 Facebook ads linked to Russia have already been studied by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to the country. Facebook initially didn’t want to share detailed information like this with Congress, but changed its mind on Thursday after a lengthy privacy and legal review.

“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a video on Facebook on Thursday. “That’s not what we stand for. The integrity of elections is fundamental to democracy around the world.”

Many Facebook ads are bought through a self-service system that doesn’t require interaction with a salesperson, making it harder to know who’s behind a purchase. Zuckerberg said that while it would be impossible to totally eliminate abuse of the system, Facebook can make it much more difficult for bad actors to be effective.

The changes Zuckerberg outlined on Thursday represent an attempt to bring more transparency to the process and prevent a regulatory crackdown.

He said he will add 250 employees to work on election integrity and make political ads on Facebook more transparent.

For example, users will be able to visit an advertiser’s page and see all the other political ads they’re running to other audiences on the social network. Meanwhile, the company will work more closely with election officials and other technology companies to share information on any troubling marketing campaigns.

“It is a new challenge for internet communities to have to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections,” Zuckerberg said. “But if that’s what we must do then we will rise to the occasion.”

The response comes after widespread criticism, especially from Democrats, about the company’s lack of clarity and cooperation. Some have called for tighter rules or regulation of online election ads, which don’t have the same requirement as television ads to include a clear sponsor and maintain a public record.

It’s a threat that Facebook may avoid if it satisfies lawmakers by regulating itself. Lawmakers, for their part, indicated they view Thursday’s moves as a good sign, but not quite enough. Facebook is expected to appear before a congressional committee in October.

Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the company’s loudest critics, wrote on Twitter that Facebook’s move was an “important & absolutely necessary first step.”

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Facebook data will help the panel try to figure out whether the company was tough enough in its internal investigation and why it took so long to learn of the ads.

“It will be necessary to hear directly from Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as others in the tech sector, including in open hearings that will inform the American public,” Schiff said in a statement. “Moving forward, the committee’s investigation will require greater and ongoing cooperation by Facebook and other social media companies on this and other issues.”

Zuckerberg noted that Facebook’s investigation into pre-election meddling by Russia isn’t over. The company is looking at other potential avenues of manipulation, including by looking at posts that originated from former Soviet states and other foreign actors.

The company said Congress should decide how much to tell the public about what the ads from last year contained. Trevor Potter, a former Republican chairperson of the Federal Election Commission, said Facebook should tell the public directly.

“Public disclosure of all information related to these 3 000 advertisements is necessary so that all of us understand how this occurred, and we can ensure that policies – both at Facebook and from the government – are in place to ensure this does not happen again,” Potter said in a statement.

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