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Facebook’s Sandberg vows more transparency on Russian ads

COO Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges that Facebook has a responsibility to prevent future meddling in US elections.

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Sheryl Sandberg says Facebook will do more to prevent election interference.

Allison Shelley / Getty Images

Facebook has been asked a lot of questions about its role in hosting Russian-backed ads during the 2016 US presidential election.

On Thursday, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg took a crack at answering some of them during a public interview with news site Axios.

"Things happened on our platform in this election that should not have happened," she said. "We know we have a responsibility to do anything we can to prevent that."

That means fully cooperating with Congress and supporting the eventual release of the ads, as well as information on how they were targeted to specific audiences on Facebook.

This is the first public interview for Sandberg, or any senior Facebook executive, since the controversy over Russian ads reached a fever pitch last month. In September, CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that more than $100,000 worth of ads were bought by what now appear to be Russian agents who were attempting to interfere in the 2016 US election. Earlier this month, the social network handed over 3,000 such ads to Congress.

When Zuckerberg made that announcement, he also vowed Facebook would commit itself to protecting "election integrity." He promised more transparency around political ads and said Facebook would add 250 people across all its teams working on safety and security.

During Sandberg's interview with Axios, she reiterated steps Facebook is taking to minimize the chance that this sort of interference will happen again, including heavily investing in machine learning, hiring more staff to increase oversight related to advertising, and increasing transparency, as well as working with third party fact-checkers and offering people warnings when they're about to share an article that's been flagged as having false information.

"There have always been bad actors out there trying to undermine our values," she said. "We can make it a lot harder for people to harm us."

Sandberg's Axios interview is part of her trip to Washington, DC, this week to meet with members of Congress as Facebook deals with the ad controversy. Sandberg's trip comes as Facebook prepares to testify at congressional hearings on Nov. 1 on the use of social media by foreigners to interfere with the election. Both Twitter and Google are also expected to testify.

Silicon Valley companies have been trying to do damage control in response to the controversy, in hopes of heading off stricter regulations from Washington. When asked if Facebook was a media company and should be regulated as such, Sandberg said Facebook is a tech company at heart, but does bear some responsibility for what happens in the platform.

She also said efforts among other platforms need to be coordinated, noting that Facebook isn't the only site where these types of problems popped up.

Last month, Twitter said it discovered 201 accounts that may be tied to the same Russian accounts that purchased the Facebook ads. Google, too, is in the midst of an internal investigation and reportedly found that Russians paid for tens of thousands of dollars on ads on YouTube, Gmail and Google search.

Sandberg also showed how maintaining free expression on the platform can be tricky. Targeting ads toward specific audiences, for example, can be helpful for businesses with very specific products but goes awry when used for discriminatory purposes. Sandberg noted that Facebook would not have taken down US Rep. Marsha Blackburn's ad mentioning "baby body parts" in reference to abortion, as Twitter initially did this week. Blackburn is a Republican from Tennessee. 

"When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for everyone," Sandberg said. 

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