Facebook has given new details of the extent of the estimated reach of Russian-linked material during the 2016 US presidential election.

Ahead of congressional testimony, the social media platform said a Russian group posted more than 80,000 times on its service during and after the election, potentially reaching as many as 126 million users.

Facebook said a Russian group posted more than 80,000 times on its service during and after the election, potentially reaching as many as 126 million users. /Photo via Reuters

“This equals about four-thousandths of one percent of content on Facebook’s News Feed,” says Colin Stretch Facebook’s general counsel. This would mean a user would have to watch at least 600 hours of TV to see an advert from the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the significance of fake news reports that spread on the network, saying it was “a pretty crazy idea” to suggest that fake news could have affected the outcome of the presidential election.

Earlier in September, the California-based social media giant first informed lawmakers that it had identified 470 accounts associated with a Russia-linked website – the Internet Research Agency. Those accounts spent around 100, 000 US dollars on more than 3,000 adverts between June 2015 and August 2017.

The company was due to disclose the numbers to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the testimony quoted by AP. The person declined to be named because the committee has not officially released the testimony.

Twitter plans to tell the same committee that it has uncovered and shut down 2,752 accounts linked to the same group, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which AP said is known for promoting pro-Russian government positions.

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Facebook, Twitter and Google will testify at three Capitol Hill hearings this week. /Photo via Reuters

That number is nearly 14 times larger than the number of accounts Twitter handed over to congressional committees three weeks ago, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Facebook, Twitter and Google are due to testify at three Capitol Hill 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, however, makes clear that many of the 126 million people reached this way may not have seen the posts.

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.

On Twitter, the Russia-linked accounts put out 1.4 million election-related tweets from September through November 15 last year. /Photo via Reuters

On Twitter, the Russia-linked accounts put out 1.4 million election-related tweets from September through November 15 last year – nearly half of them automated. The company also found nine Russian accounts that bought ads, most of which came from the state-backed news service Russia Today, or RT.

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Twitter said last week it would no longer accept ads from RT and Sputnik, another state-sponsored news outlet. It will donate the 1.9 million US dollars it has earned from RT since 2011 to support external research into political uses of Twitter.

Facebook has said it will take steps to fix the problem. Last week it said it will verify political ad buyers in federal elections and build transparency tools to link ads to the Facebook pages of their sponsors. Twitter has also said it will require election-related ads for candidates to disclose who is paying for them and how they are targeted.

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 US dollars lobbying the government this year, according to federal disclosure forms.

The three tech companies this week 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.

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.

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Facebook and Twitter have publicly outlined steps they are taking to give the public more information about who buys and who sees political ads on their site. /Photo via Reuters

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.

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 US 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.