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AP report: Russia-linked posts may have reached 126 million Facebook users

WASHINGTON — Facebook says a Russian group posted more than 80,000 times on its service during and after the 2016 election, potentially reaching as many as 126 million users.

The company plans to disclose these numbers to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the testimony. The person declined to be named because the committee has not officially released the testimony. Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify at three hearings Tuesday and Wednesday.

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, plans to tell the Judiciary panel that 120 pages set up by Russia’s Internet Research Agency posted the material between January 2015 and August 2017. The company estimates that roughly 29 million people were directly “served” these items in their news feeds from the agency over that time period.

Some of those people received the posts because they liked one of the agency’s pages, or because a Facebook friend liked or commented on a post. Others shared the Russia-linked posts, helping them spread widely.

Stretch’s prepared testimony makes clear that many of the 126 million people reached this way may not have seen the posts. People may not have logged in when it was available, or they may have looked right past it. The company says the total number of agency posts accounted for less than 1 of every 23,000 posts on Facebook.

These “organic” posts that appeared in users’ news feeds are distinct from more than 3,000 advertisements linked to the agency that Facebook has already turned over to congressional committees. The ads — many of which focused on divisive social issues — pointed people to the agency’s pages, where they could then like or share its material.

In the testimony, Stretch says the discovery of Russian interference has “opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society,” and says Facebook is determined that it not happen again. “What these actors did goes against everything Facebook stands for,” Stretch says.

The company has said it will take steps to fix the problem, with an announcement last week that they will verify political ad buyers in federal elections and build transparency tools in which all advertisers will be associated with a page. Twitter has also said it will require election-related ads for candidates to disclose who is paying for them and how they are targeted, and announced last month that it will ban ads from RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored Russian news outlets.

Stretch says the company was aware of — and reported to law enforcement — threats from actors with ties to Russia before last year’s election. He says that includes activity from a cluster of accounts that the company assessed belonged to a group called “APT28” that has been linked to Russian military intelligence. He says the company “warned the targets who were at highest risk.”

In the hearings this week with the Judiciary panel and the House and Senate intelligence committees, the three companies are expected to face questions about what evidence of Russian interference they found on their services — and, likely, why they didn’t find it earlier. They will almost certainly do what they can to convince lawmakers that they can fix the problem on their own, without the need for regulation.

The companies have been under constant pressure from Congress since it was first revealed earlier this year that Russians had infiltrated some of their platforms. Facebook has already spent more than $8.4 million lobbying the government this year, according to federal disclosure forms.

Facebook and Twitter — though not Google — have publicly outlined steps they are taking to give the public more information about who buys and who sees political advertising on their site. The moves are meant to bring the companies more in line with what is now required of print and broadcast advertisers.

A bill unveiled earlier this month would require social media companies to keep public files of election ads and require companies to “make reasonable efforts” to make sure that foreign individuals or entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence Americans.

The issue goes far beyond ads. Fake news, fake events, propaganda and other misinformation spread far and wide on the platforms in 2016 without the need for paid advertisements. But regulating online speech would be more difficult for U.S. lawmakers.

In addition, analysts and online speech advocates have warned that policing internet election ads is not the same thing as doing so in print newspapers or on TV. Automated advertising platforms allow basically anyone with an internet account and a credit card to place an ad with little or no oversight from the companies.

Facebook has said it is building machine learning tools to address this issue, but didn’t provide details.

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