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Russian-backed Facebook posts reached 126m Americans, company to testify

The Guardian logo The Guardian 31/10/2017 Olivia Solon in San Francisco and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington
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Watch: Russian-planted Facebook posts much more widespread than previously disclosed (Wochit News)

Russian-backed content reached as many as 126 million Americans on Facebook during and after the 2016 presidential election, according to the company’s prepared testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of hearings this week.

One hundred and twenty fake Russian-backed pages created 80,000 posts that were received by 29 million Americans directly but then amplified to a much bigger potential audience by users sharing, liking and following the posts.

The company plans to disclose these numbers to the Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the testimony. The person declined to be named because the committee has not officially released the testimony.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The company has pledged to make political advertising more transparent. © AP Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The company has pledged to make political advertising more transparent. After appearing before the Judiciary committee on Tuesday, representatives for the three tech companies will testify before the Senate and House intelligence committees in back-to-back public hearings on Wednesday. Both intelligence panels are conducting separate inquiries into Russian meddling in the US election.

The tech giants’ testimony will follow dramatic developments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian inference in the 2016 election, with three indictments, including two top Trump campaign aides.

Colin Stretch, a lawyer for Facebook, will explain on Tuesday that Russia’s Internet Research Agency posted the material between 2015 and 2017. The posts spread widely, although many of those 126 million people may not have actually seen the material.

Although 126 million people is about half of Americans eligible to vote, Facebook plans to downplay the significance at the congressional hearings.

“Our best estimate is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of their stories at some point during the two-year period. This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content,” Stretch says in his written testimony, obtained by several news outlets.

The discovery of Russian interference has, according to Stretch’s testimony, “opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society”.

© AP

Facebook closed the accounts and reported malicious actors tied to Russia to US law enforcement.

Such “organic” posts are distinct from more than 3,000 advertisements also linked to the agency. These ads, disclosed in early October, were viewed by up to 10 million Facebook users. Twitter and Google found similar activity on their own platforms.

Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice-president of policy and communications, said on 2 October that the advertisements appeared to focus on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights”.

Twitter and Google have also submitted testimony to US lawmakers.

Google, which has not previously commented on its internal investigation, said it discovered $4,700 worth of ads with suspicious Russian ties as well as 18 YouTube channels linked to the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. It also discovered Gmail addresses used to open accounts on other platforms.

Twitter has found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian operatives – more than 10 times greater than it had previously informed lawmakers.

Facebook and Twitter, though not Google, have publicly outlined steps they are taking to give the public more information about who buys and who sees political advertising on their site. The transparency initiatives are meant to bring the companies more in line with what is required of print and TV advertisers.

Their actions appear to pre-empt regulation. A bill unveiled earlier this month would require social media companies to keep public files of election ads and require companies to “make reasonable efforts” to make sure that foreign individuals or entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence Americans.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The company has pledged to make political advertising more transparent.Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

In April, Facebook publicly acknowledged for the first time that its platform had been exploited by governments seeking to manipulate public opinion in other countries, including during the presidential elections in the US and France.

The company described such tactics as “information operations” in a white paper authored by the company’s security team, detailing well-funded and subtle techniques used by countries to spread misleading information and falsehoods in aid of geopolitical goals.

At the time, Facebook did not attribute the manipulation to any country, although it said that the company’s investigation “does not contradict” the findings of a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence that outlined Russian involvement in the election.

Prior to that, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg had dismissed the notion that the social network had an impact on the presidential race, describing it as a “pretty crazy idea” and saying that voters “make decisions based on their lived experience”.

In September, Zuckerberg expressed remorse for his earlier statements.

“After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it,” the founder wrote. “This is too important an issue to be dismissive.”

On Monday, a federal grand jury indicted Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and his longtime business associate Rick Gates, on 12 charges that included conspiring against the United States and money laundering.

In addition, George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin.

According to court documents unsealed on Monday, Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about communications with an unnamed professor – identified by the Washington Post as Joseph Mifsud – who offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”. Another of his contacts was a woman who described herself as “Putin’s niece”.

Manafort and Gates, who both pleaded not guilty in a federal courtroom in Washington on Monday, have also been charged with being unregistered foreign agents and failing to disclose lobbying on behalf of foreign governments that resulted in more than $75m flowing through offshore accounts.

Both men were placed under house arrest by a federal judge, who set bail at $10m for Manafort and $5m for Gates.

Agencies contributed reporting

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