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Lawmakers are pushing Facebook to reach out to each U.S. user who saw Russian propaganda

Plus, Rep. Adam Schiff asks tech giants to work together and produce their own report studying Russian meddling.

Senator Chris Coons shows a Facebook event page created by Russian operatives.
With a Facebook event page featuring a 'Miners For Trump' rally created by Russian operatives displayed behind him, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) questions witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers nudged Facebook on Wednesday to inform individual U.S. users — millions in total — that they saw Russian propaganda on the site during the 2016 presidential election.

The call for the company to proactively alert these users originated at a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, where Facebook once again acknowledged that 140 million U.S. users — including on apps it owns, like Instagram — may have seen posts, pages or other content posted by Kremlin-backed trolls.

Among the members of Congress to express interest in the idea was Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intel panel. Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Schiff said it would probably be “relatively easy to notify those followers” of profiles and pages that have been identified as Russian troll accounts.

Earlier in the day, Rep. Terri Sewell, a Democratic lawmaker from Alabama, pushed Facebook most forcefully. Noting that Russian agents had sought to organize users on different sides of issues to appear and fight each other at rallies — events around sensitive issues like race and immigration — Sewell asked Facebook if it felt an “obligation to let those folks know that [it] was a hoax ... or at least inform them who was behind that sponsored advertisement.”

In response, Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, pointed to materials his company has already released about Russian disinformation efforts — including on the social giant’s corporate blog. He said Facebook is working with lawmakers to release copies of ads purchased by Russian sources.

Even if Facebook never complies, the exchange offered just one example of some of the tough demands made by lawmakers frustrated that the company — and its peers, Google and Twitter — didn’t do enough to spot and combat Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.

Over the course of three hearings in two days, policymakers also pressed Silicon Valley’s most recognizable brands to change their business practices, from patrolling troubling content more aggressively to accepting new regulation on their political ads.

Tech companies agreed to a few concessions. Along with Facebook, Google and Twitter also said on Wednesday they would work with House lawmakers to release more information about the ads and other Russian-sponsored content that appeared on their platforms. Schiff said he didn’t have a definite timeline for their release — largely because Congress and tech companies must work to strip data of private, personal information.

And he and other lawmakers had additional asks. Chief among them: Schiff wants the trio of tech giants to team up, compare notes and “produce a report for us” — a tag-team readout that would complement the investigation happening concurrently on Capitol Hill. In his press conference, the Democratic lawmaker stressed the House Intelligence Committee alone only has so much visibility into the inner workings of their platforms.

“It’s very difficult for us, without access to their data ... to be able to understand how the Russians used these platforms interchangeably and what the sum total of this was,” Schiff said.

Informing users that they had seen Russian propaganda could prove difficult. Facebook’s Stretch, responding to that request during the hearing, acknowledged it’s a “much more challenging issue to identify and notify” people who “may have been exposed to this content on an individual basis.” That’s largely because the figure that the company has shared about affected users — 29 million directly, and 126 million including likes and shares — is partly the result of “estimates and modeling,” he said.

Even Schiff acknowledged that informing users who are “downstream” might be “more difficult.” But, he then expressed concern that Facebook and others didn’t volunteer a “clear answer to that question,” adding that blog posts and other disclaimers may not go “far enough to answer the questions that were raised today.”

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