It's hard to overstate just how much social media network and search engine advertising helped the Russians plant their fake news stories, and nobody's more guilty of this than Facebook, the tool of choice for the discriminating Russian provatskiya agent. Now that we know Russian front companies bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ads on Zuckerberg's toy, Congress has a few questions they want answered, and they have the means to get those answers.
The discovery that a Russian company bought election-related Facebook ads in last year’s presidential race opens new avenues for Justice Department and congressional investigators and likely will lead to subpoenas for confidential records of social media advertisers, former prosecutors say.
Facebook’s disclosure, which a key Senate Democrat called “the tip of the iceberg,” appears to show that Russians searching for ways to harm Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects broke criminal laws barring foreigners from attempting to influence U.S. elections.
The findings could ease investigators’ efforts to win Facebook’s voluntary release of records showing whether Russian intelligence agencies went even further to boost Donald Trump’s chances – by buying far more ads with much stealthier methods than the easily traceable $150,000 in purchases that the company divulged on Wednesday.
If Facebook, Twitter and other social media firms don’t cooperate, subpoenas could be in the offing.
The evidence of Russian ad buys on Facebook "is likely to be of great interest to all of the entities investigating Russian interference with last year’s election,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former assistant U.S. attorney who now heads the Columbia University law school’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.
“To the extent that Facebook and other social media companies don’t voluntarily cooperate, I would expect subpoenas to be issued and other legal avenues to be pursued," she added -- though it’s uncertain whether the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees would oblige Democrats' push to compel cooperation.
Russia’s use of social media is a focus of investigations into the Kremlin’s massive, multi-pronged cyberattack by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the congressional intelligence committees.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that he has believed since the beginning of his panel’s investigation that Russians were using “the very social media sites that we rely on for virtually everything – the Facebooks, Googles and Twitters … to intervene in our elections.”
Addressing a major intelligence conference in Washington, Warner called “the tip of the iceberg” Facebook’s revelation that it had tracked thousands of the ads to a Russian company linked to a so-called, Kremlin-directed “troll farm” that spread Russian propaganda.
The sponsored Facebook ads pop up near the top of Facebook users’ private news feeds. Ads that are targeted to a certain subset of people are known as “dark posts,” because only the recipients see them. Many such ads are designed to automatically disappear once they’ve been viewed by Facebook customers.
U.S. intelligence agencies also say Russian operatives unleashed automated attacks using computer commands known as “bots” to circulate fake news about Clinton, often via phony Twitter accounts.
Warner said he wants Facebook representatives “to come back in” for further questioning by Senate investigators.
“I want to see Twitter back in” as well, he said. “I want to see others come back in.”
My biggest hope is that subpoenas derail Zuckerberg's political aspirations for good (or at least until after 2020). The last thing Democrats need right now is one of the world's richest white guys promising he can run America like a start-up and on the ticket by dint of the Golden Rule: he who has the gold, makes the rules.