Despite public promises of cooperation from Facebook Inc and other social media companies, US congressional investigators are battling over how much data the companies should hand over to them on Russian efforts to influence last year’s US presidential election.
Congressional sources this week said that Facebook has been slow to cooperate.
The company and others have said they are turning over information, but also that they are legally obligated to protect their users’ privacy.
On visits to Capitol Hill on Wednesday and Thursday, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met with leaders of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, and said the company wanted to help investigators and would turn over more information.
“Things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened” in the lead-up to the election, Sandberg told the Axios Web site on Thursday.
Facebook and other major Internet companies, including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc, have faced a stream of recent revelations about how Moscow sought to use their platforms to sow discord in the US and influence the election in favor of US President Donald Trump.
Facebook last month said that it had found about 3,000 politically divisive advertisements believed to have been bought by Russia before and after the presidential campaign.
The company has shared with congressional investigators the ads, information on how they were paid for and how they were targeted, a Facebook spokesman said.
Sandberg on Thursday told congressional investigators that in addition to the ads, the company would provide the rest of the information from accounts linked to Russia, the spokesman said.
Twitter has handed over to US Senate investigators the profile names, or “handles,” of 201 accounts linked to Russian attempts at influencing the election.
The company has stepped up its efforts to cooperate with investigators after it was criticized for not taking congressional probes seriously enough.
The handover occurred this week, said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
The use of social media platforms was part of what US intelligence agencies have concluded was a broader Russian effort to meddle in the election campaign, an allegation the Kremlin has denied.
Several US congressional committees, as well as US special counsel Robert Mueller, are investigating Russian interference, including any potential collusion between Trump associates and Moscow.
Facebook last month disclosed that it had evidence that an operation based in Russia had spent US$100,000 on thousands of sponsored posts promoting divisive social and political messages in a two-year period through May.
Facebook said it believed the messages were likely bought by people in Russia before and after last year’s election.
Sources familiar with Facebook’s contacts with the US Congress said that as recently as July, company officials were denying the existence of any paid Russian messaging, and only later acknowledged that the company had found US$100,000 in sponsored traffic linked to 478 Facebook accounts.
The sources said investigators think the paid messaging was generated by a group called the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg.
US officials have called it a “troll factory” that creates false identities or copies real ones to spread real, skewed and fake information for the Kremlin.
Congressional sources said some of the Facebook messaging went to groups with seemingly legitimate names such as Heart of Texas, Defend the Second, and United Muslims of America, which they said all had as many as 250,000 followers.
These groups now appear to have been bogus, or set up to look like legitimate political organizations, and investigators want to learn more about the groups, their followers and their origins, the sources said.
Additional reporting by AP
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