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Facebook finally hands over Russian-linked ads to Congress — but they may be tip of the iceberg

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After previously saying it was “crazy” to suggest Facebook helped Donald Trump become president, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that the social media giant will hand over 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Congress to help with their investigation into the Kremlin’s election interference.

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity,” he said in a public Facebook post. “While the amount of problematic content we’ve found so far remains relatively small, any attempted interference is a serious issue.” Zuckerberg added that Facebook would continue to investigate the actions of other additional groups that may have tried to influence the election, including those in other former Soviet states.

But the 470 fake accounts, and the 3,000 ads purchased for $100,000 seem like strangely small numbers for a social media site that has two billion monthly users and where three million businesses actively advertise. This is especially true if you look at the resources available to one Russian troll farm has at its disposal.

In 2015, the New York Times investigated the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg. They reported that the approximately 400 employees, each likely responsible for multiple social media accounts, spent their days churning out pro-Kremlin propaganda, with a budget of roughly $400,000 a month. Those numbers would mean that the IRA would only have need to have spent two percent of its annual budget to buy those 3,000 ads which have just been turned over to Congress.

Facebook itself has admitted that “there is evidence that some of the accounts are linked to a troll farm in St. Petersburg, referred to as the Internet Research Agency, though we have no way to independently confirm” and that it was “possible” that more ads would be found. “It’s a game of cat and mouse,” Elliot Schrage, Facebook Vice President on Policy, said in a blog post. “Bad actors are always working to use more sophisticated methods to obfuscate their origins and cover their tracks.”

Russian corporate records indicate that the IRA hasn’t been active since December 2016 – but a new company called Glasvet, headed by the same general director, is now occupying the same building. Russian media has linked the two companies.

“If Facebook has only identified ads purchased by one of these companies, there needs to be an immediate investigation into activity by everything in this ‘Kremlebot’ empire” Diana Pilipenko, principal investigator on the Center for American Progress’ Moscow Project told Wired. “This may just be the tip of the iceberg”.

Senator Mark Warner, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference, also thinks that the 470 accounts show only a fragment of Russia’s Facebook presence. “By the time the French elections happened in the Spring, Facebook worked with the French and took down 50,000 accounts they felt were related to Russian activity,” he told CNN. “In America, Facebook has only identified 470 accounts. To me, that doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Unsurprisingly, Trump lambasted the development, restating his position that the Russia investigation was a “hoax”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also denied the allegations.

The announcement comes after several weeks of bad publicity for Facebook. Last week a study from Yale found that Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news by fact-checking had next-to-no impact, and on Wednesday Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg issued a lengthy apology after Pro Publica found that Facebook’s advertising system failed to prevent ads that targeted users who described themselves as “Jew haters.”

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