Facebook Warned FBI About Russian Interference Before 2016 Election: Report

Facebook detected activity by Kremlin-linked hackers suspected of U.S. election interference on its platform during the presidential election and informed the FBI, according to a Washington Post report.

In the months that followed, Facebook and the U.S. government reportedly struggled to come up with an effective response to the campaign, and two months before he left office, Barack Obama personally warned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of the danger of fake news and disinformation being spread on the platform.

GettyImages-112746828 (1) President Barack Obama talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a town hall-style meeting at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, California, on April 20, 2011. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

According to the report, which cited more than a dozen Facebook and government sources familiar with the events, Facebook did not foresee the wave of fake news launched via the platform and struggled to better shore up its systems while balancing users’ right to free expression.

Last week, Facebook handed congressional investigators probing the Russians’ election interference more than 3,000 ads it believes were purchased by a Russian troll farm. The company had previously resisted sharing the information, citing concerns over privacy.

Facebook’s role in the Russian interference campaign has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks. The Daily Beast reported earlier in September that Russian operatives masquerading as a U.S. group organized an anti-immigrant protest in Idaho during the election.

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called for new laws to prevent foreign adversaries from manipulating news feeds intended for U.S. social media users.

“I’m glad they came through with some information,” Warner told reporters after Facebook handed over the information. “But there’s a lot more questions.” He said Facebook had earlier “pooh-poohed” allegations that Russia had used the site as part of its influence campaign.

Facebook cybersecurity experts notified the FBI about their suspicions of a Russian intelligence operation in June 2016, after tracking a Russian hacker group known as APT28, or Fancy Bear, which the U.S. intelligence community has alleged is part of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit.

Facebook later notified the FBI again when members of APT28 were setting up a series of shadowy accounts to promote hacked emails and other documents during the presidential race, according to The Washington Post. 

However, the site reportedly struggled to find clear evidence of Russian manipulation. In November, Obama met with Zuckerberg at a global forum for world leaders in Lima, Peru, and warned him that the problem would worsen in the coming years.

Facebook has since developed a tool for detecting patterns indicating attempts at political interference on its platform. It was rolled out during the French presidential election in May and used again during Sunday’s federal election in Germany.

Spokespersons for Obama and Zuckerberg have not responded to claims in the report.

Facebook said it acted appropriately when faced with the matter.

“We believe in the power of democracy, which is why we’re taking this work on elections integrity so seriously and have come forward at every opportunity to share what we’ve found,” said Elliot Schrage, vice president for public policy and communications.

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