A growing number of lawmakers are pushing for Facebook to publicly release political ads purchased on its platform by Russian actors during the 2016 elections.
They argue that the public should see the ads so that they can be informed on how foreign actors may try to exploit Facebook ads to influence them.
“The American people deserve to see the ways that the Russian intelligence services manipulated and took advantage of online platforms to stoke and amplify social and political tensions, which remains a tactic we see the Russian government rely on today,” Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said earlier this week.
Facebook has been hesitant to make the ads public.
Though the social media giant released 3,000 advertisements to congressional investigators this week, it only did so after initially resisting pressure from lawmakers.
“Federal law places strict limitations on the disclosure of account information,” Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a Sept. 21 post on the company’s website.
“Given the sensitive national security and privacy issues involved in this extraordinary investigation, we think Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”
The company revealed in September that the Kremlin-linked “Internet Research Agency,” had purchased $100,000 in political ads on its platform around the 2016 elections.
A source with knowledge of Facebook’s thinking says that the company is hesitating because it believes it is unclear to what degree Russian interference in the U.S. election happened on its platform.
Most lawmakers, however, seem to want the ads to be made public.
“I don’t know why the ads [shouldn’t be released],” Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters on Thursday. “I assume that they were already published, so they’re not secret to my knowledge.”
“I think [the ads] need to be public,” Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel, said on Thursday.
At the same time, Warner said it should be Facebook that releases the ads to the public, and not members of Congress.
“I also agree with [Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.)]. We don’t want to set a precedent by giving out materials. I think it’s up to Facebook,” Warner said.
The top ranking Democrat in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), says she agrees with Warner. The Senate Judiciary Committees also has the ads.
It’s unclear if there are lawmakers who are opposed to the ads being released to the public. Warner and Blumenthal declined to comment on whether any of their colleagues pushed back against calls to make the advertisements public.
Outside observers, however, are divided on whether the release of the ads would serve the public.
Some believe that the transparency would help restore public trust in Facebook and other companies, but others think that a mass release of the ads publicly could have negative impacts.
“[Showing the ads] might just create more fear, lower levels of trust, and give the Russian government more credit than they deserve for what happened in 2016,” said Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the University of Oxford who has explored how governments use social media to influence people.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has testified before the Senate on Russian operations, thinks that while researchers could provide insights by analyzing the ads, showing them to the public would only cause problems.
“It creates a wild sea of conspiracies,” Watts said. “I do worry about the public. I don’t know if they really understand what they’re looking at. Everyone thinks they can somehow analyze Facebook. Often people aren’t equipped to do it.”