Facebook's Sandberg favors release of Russia-linked ads

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, file photo, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a plenary session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Sandberg says the ads linked to Russia trying to influence the U.S. presidential election should “absolutely” be released to the public. In an interview with Axios, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, Sandberg also said the company has the responsibility to prevent the kind of abuse that occurred on its platform during the election. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP, File)

NEW YORK — A top Facebook executive says ads linked to Russia trying to influence the U.S. presidential election should "absolutely" be released to the public, along with information on whom the ads were targeting.

Previously, Facebook declined to make the ads public. While Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, now favors the release, she didn't say Thursday when the company would do so.

The company disclosed last month that it found ads linked to fake accounts — likely run from Russia — that sought to influence the election. Facebook says these ads focused on divisive political issues, such as immigration and gun rights, in an apparent attempt to sow discord among the U.S. population. The ads included promoted events and amplified posts that show up in users' news feeds.

Facebook has turned over the ads — and information on how they were targeted, such as by geography or to people with a certain political affiliation — to congressional investigators. Congress is also investigating Russia-linked ads on Twitter and Google.

In an interview with the news site Axios on Thursday, Sandberg said Facebook has the responsibility to prevent the kind of abuse that occurred on its service during the election. She said Facebook hopes to "set a new standard in transparency in advertising."

But she also said that had the ads been linked to legitimate, rather than fake, Facebook accounts, "most of them would have been allowed to run." While the company prohibits certain content such as hate speech, it does not want to prevent free expression, she said.

"The thing about free expression is that when you allow free expression, you allow free expression," Sandberg said.

The move comes as critics and lawmakers are increasingly calling for the regulation of Facebook and other internet giants.

Sandberg is meeting with elected officials in Washington this week ahead of a House hearing at which executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google are expected to testify. Sandberg is no stranger to Washington. Before her time at Google and later Facebook, she worked for Larry Summers, the treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Sandberg said Facebook didn't catch these ads earlier because it was focused on other threats, such as hacking. Facebook, she said, does owe America an apology.

"What we really owe the American people is determination" to do "everything we can" to defend against threats and foreign interference, Sandberg said.

Sandberg didn't say whether she believes Facebook played a role in electing Donald Trump as president, as critics have said it did by allowing the spread of fake news on its service.

She said only that the role Facebook plays in elections "go beyond any one campaign, any one country."

Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has backtracked from calling the idea of Facebook's influence on the election "pretty crazy."

Later Thursday, Sandberg met privately with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, where she was pressed on what the company is doing in response to its discovery that many of the ads pushed by Russian-linked accounts were aimed at sowing racial discord.

A member of Congress who viewed about 70 of the roughly 3,000 ads told The Associated Press that they were meant to stir up strong emotions on all sides. Some of the ads showed white police officers beating black people, said the member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the ads aren't yet public.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana who chairs the caucus, said that 95 percent of the 3,000 ads were placed on Facebook itself, while the remaining five percent were on Instagram.

Besides discussing election meddling, the members also pushed for Facebook to improve diversity in its workforce, particularly in its upper management. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat who chairs the caucus, said Sandberg promised to appoint an African-American to the board, a move the caucus and other activists have been pushing for years. Facebook has eight board members, all white. Two, including Sandberg, are women.

___

Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this story from Washington.

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