© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Russian-Linked Election Ads Highlight Scope Of Facebook's Power


For months, Facebook has denied that fake news circulating on its platform had a hand in President Trump's election victory last year. Now it is admitting as much. We'll look at what's changed on this week's All Tech Considered.


CHANG: Facebook last week gave Congress thousands of ads on the social network that it says are linked to Russia, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced other moves designed to prevent foreign governments from using Facebook to influence future elections. To talk about all of this we have NPR's Laura Sydell with us now. Hi, Laura.


CHANG: What exactly is Facebook doing right now?

SYDELL: It's making changes to the process of placing political ads on the network. Now users are going to be able to see an advertiser's web page, see who's behind the ads, what other ads the sponsor has and who else is being shown the ads. And this might enable a user to maybe understand the deeper motivations of the advertiser. Then the company's also requiring advertisers to disclose who sponsored their advertisements. And it will add another 250 employees to focus on election integrity and security.

CHANG: What specifically brought this on? What finally nudged Facebook into action?

SYDELL: There was a lot of pressure on the company from Congress to look more deeply. In fact, the Russians had managed to evade Facebook's security. And according to a report in The Washington Post, once it looked a little harder, Facebook discovered that members of a hacking group connected to Russia's military intelligence unit, GRU, began creating fake Facebook accounts to amplify stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee. And that goes back as early as June of 2016.

CHANG: Now, all of this is a big turnaround for the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, because in November he denied that fake news on Facebook played any role in the election. I believe he said that he felt U.S. citizens were making their voting decisions based on their - how did he put it? - their lived experience.

SYDELL: It's been a long journey for Mark Zuckerberg. Silicon Valley has a longtime adherence to the principles of free speech and this idea that no censorship and open exchange of ideas is just good. Since then, Zuckerberg has kind of changed. It's now been widely reported that shortly after the November election he was approached by then-President Obama who was convinced that Facebook had spread fake news that had been planted by the Russians. And in the months since, Congress has been putting more and more pressure on the company.

CHANG: Now, how did Facebook miss this connection between political ads and Russia for so long? Is there something wrong with the way it screens advertisers?

SYDELL: That is a question that gets to a very core issue about Facebook and, frankly, a lot of the tech industry. In the past, when - in the advertising industry actual humans would go out, find advertisers and sell to them. Now all of this is done by computer algorithm. And if you explain this in the most simple terms, an advertiser simply goes on to Facebook, sets up an account, says what kind of person they want to target, and the ads go out to that particular kind of person. Facebook does program its algorithms to look for fraud. But if you've got a smart foreign agent - say, Russia - familiar with how those algorithms work, they can evade them.

CHANG: So what can we expect next?

SYDELL: I think that Mark Zuckerberg took these recent steps because he wants to avoid more action by Congress. I mean, this is a company that's got 70 percent of all U.S. adults on the platform. So now Senate Democrats are working on legislation that would require web platforms - and that also includes Google and others - to disclose the names of individuals and organizations that spend more than $10,000 on election-related advertisements. And I suspect that's an effort we're going to be hearing a lot more about.

CHANG: That's NPR's digital culture correspondent, Laura Sydell. Thanks, Laura.

SYDELL: You are welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.