Facebook says Russian-backed election content reached 126 million Americans

WASHINGTON — An estimated 126 million Americans, roughly one-third of the nation’s population, received Russian-backed content on Facebook during the 2016 campaign, according to prepared testimony the company submitted Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee and obtained by NBC News.

Underscoring how widely content on the social media platform can spread, Facebook says in the testimony that while some 29 million Americans directly received material from 80,000 posts by 120 fake Russian-backed pages in their own news feeds, those posts were “shared, liked and followed by people on Facebook, and, as a result, three times more people may have been exposed to a story that originated from the Russian operation.”

The testimony by Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, was submitted to the Judiciary Committee ahead of a hearing on Tuesday with executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter. The hearing is part of the congressional inquiry into Russia’s use of these platforms to try to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Putting the Trump-Russia timeline into perspective
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Putting the Trump-Russia timeline into perspective
June 7: The 2016 primary season essentially concludes, with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the presumptive party nominees
June 9: Donald Trump Jr. — along with Jared Kushner and former campaign chair Paul Manafort — meets with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
June 9: Trump tweets about Clinton's missing 33,000 emails
July 18: Washington Post reports, on the first day of the GOP convention, that the Trump campaign changed the Republican platform to ensure that it didn't call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces
July 21: GOP convention concludes with Trump giving his speech accepting the Republican nomination
July 22: WikiLeaks releases stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee
July 25: Democratic convention begins
July 27: In final news conference of his 2016 campaign, Trump asks Russia: "If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing"
August 4: Obama CIA Director John Brennan confronts his Russian counterpart about Russia's interference. "[I] told him if you go down this road, it's going to have serious consequences, not only for the bilateral relationship, but for our ability to work with Russia on any issue, because it is an assault on our democracy," Brennan said on "Meet the Press" yesterday.
October 4: WikiLeaks' Julian Assange says his organization will publish emails related to the 2016 campaign
October 7: WikiLeaks begins releasing Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta's emails
October 7: Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence release a statement directly saying that Russia is interfering in the 2016 election
October 31: "This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove," Trump says on the campaign trail
November 4: "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," Trump says from Ohio.

Posts from Russian-backed Facebook accounts from January 2015 to August 2017, by Facebook’s estimation, reached potentially half of the 250 million Americans who are eligible to vote. None of the 80,000 posts generated by fake Russian-backed pages includes the 3,000 Facebook advertisements purchased by Russian entities, according to a person familiar with the issue.

The shared content that Facebook estimates reached 126 million Americans was likely hard, if not impossible, for users of the social media platform to identify as originating from Russia.

Stretch, in his prepared testimony, seeks to play down the significance of that level of exposure to content from Russian-backed accounts.

“Our best estimate is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of their stories at some point during the two-year period,” Stretch says in prepared testimony. “This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.”

The person familiar with the issue said: “Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you'd have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from” the Russia-backed posts.

Dave Karpf, a professor of media and technology at George Washington University, said the reach of the Russian-backed content is problematic but is unlikely to have affected the outcome of the election.

“It is a problem in that this is evidence that foreign nationals actively attempted to impact our election and they did manage to reach 126 million with messages,” Karpf said. “It’s going to be important for Facebook and Google and Twitter to get a handle on this stuff before the next election, hopefully with the help from our regulators, but what we should avoid is thinking, ‘Wow, 126 million people were duped into voting for Trump.’”

Facebook has said the Russian-backed entities violated the company’s policies because, Stretch says in his prepared testimony, they “came from a set of coordinated, inauthentic accounts.”

“We shut these accounts down and began trying to understand how they misused our platform,” the testimony says.

Stretch’s testimony also says that Facebook tried to mitigate threats “from actors with ties to Russia” by reporting them to U.S. law enforcement, including accounts belonging to a group the U.S. has linked to Russian military intelligence services. Stretch says that group, APT28, also created “fake personas that were then used to seed stolen information to journalists” and that those were “organized under the banner of an organization that called itself DC Leaks” whose accounts Facebook later removed.

He also plans to testify that Facebook has taken lessons from the 2016 campaign and applied them to identify fake accounts ahead of the French and German elections this year. 

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