Spate of Russian-origin political advertising prompts social media crackdown in the US

Social media companies may be required to disclose how their platforms are used for political advertising under new federal legislations being drawn up in the US.

Senator Mark Warner said Congress may need to update laws in order to make them consistent with rules governing television advertising, which is subject to higher disclosure requirements.

Facebook said that an operation likely based in Russia had placed thousands of US ads with polarizing views on topics such as immigration, race and gay rights on the social media site during a two-year-period through May 2017.

“An American can still figure out what the content is being used in TV advertising. You can go look at the ad,” Warner said at a security conference.

“But in social media there is no such requirement. So, you know, we may need a legislative solution.”

Facebook’s disclosure renewed questions about the extent of foreign meddling in last year’s US presidential election.

US intelligence agencies say there was a multi-pronged cyber-influence operation that included theft and leaks of Democratic emails, the spread of political hoaxes on social media and hacking attempts on state election systems, all ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Donald Trump, a Republican, defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

On Thursday, liberal advocacy group Common Cause filed a complaint with the US Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission alleging that unknown foreign nationals made expenditures during the election in violation of American election law.

Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the suspected Russian placement of ads may have gone far beyond what Facebook disclosed, and that Twitter and other tech companies should also examine the issue.

His committee is among those investigating alleged meddling and whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow.

Television has been the backbone of political advertising for decades, and local US broadcasters are required to disclose a wealth of details about the cost and schedules of commercials. The ads can be seen by anyone with a television provided they are aired in their markets.

Online advertising offered by Facebook and other platforms such as Twitter and Google, though, often targets narrow, more carefully constructed audiences based on factors such as age, political preference or interests.

Facebook is especially valued by advertisers due to the level of data it collects on users, meaning ads can be targeted with high levels of detail.

Google, the search engine which also owns video-sharing website YouTube, said on Thursday it always monitors for abuse and that it had seen no evidence of an ad campaign like the one Facebook disclosed.

Warner said he was hopeful social media companies would not oppose legislation.

“Americans, when it comes to elections, ought to be able to know there is foreign-sponsored content coming into their electoral process,” he said.

A federal court recently rejected a lawsuit accusing Facebook of using cookies to track users’ browsing activities even when logged out of the social network. 

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