- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2017

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are eager to create new regulations for Facebook and other social media giants following revelations that Russian “troll farms” secretly bought thousands of political ad spots during last year’s presidential elections.

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it is just the “tip of the iceberg” regarding election interference on social media.

To prevent foreign adversaries from manipulating America’s leading social media news feeds, the Virginian suggests “pop up” style online ads that identify whether a political ad was paid for by a foreign source.

“The question is, is there a regulator of social media?” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican.

At issue — the divide between the online world of campaign adverting and traditional broadcasting. For decades TV and radio broadcasters have been subject to the Federal Election Commission’s political advertising laws and regulations. Facebook and other social media companies are not subject to FEC laws that focus on financial disclosure. The rules are the reason political TV and radio ads include the candidate “stating that he or she has approved the communication,” according to the FEC.

Lawmakers are now wrestling with whether such protocols should apply to social media.

Mr. Burr wants the FEC involved, but industry experts predict it would have little impact on people who manipulate the system.

“Anything you can do to help identify where political ads come from is a good thing,” said Kevin Long, CEO of Social Impostor, a web-based program that identifies and removes fake social networking profiles for celebrities, politicians and other high-profile social media users.

But balancing legislation and the industry’s ability to self-police is key, he said. The global nature of the web, he explained, is the real big-picture issue.

“Verification of social media accounts, or ads, brings a host of issues domestically,” he said. “These issues are compounded when you consider overseas social media accounts. Simply put, this is no easy thing to regulate.”

Last week, Facebook admitted to congressional investigators that Russian troll farms bought roughly $100,000 worth of political adverting, or 3,000 spots, from June 2015 to May 2017.

According to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin has “never heard about it [the Facebook ad campaign] and knows “nothing about it.”

But investigators insist a shadowy firm with Kremlin ties known as the Internet Research Agency drove a disinformation campaign during the election, spraying out waves of divisive “fake news” focused on controversial American social issues including gun control, immigration, race and gay rights.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed concerns around foreign propaganda — or fake news — in the months since the election the leading social media firm has scrambled to ramp up its ability to track and police ads and users. It already has shuttered some 470 accounts and pages potentially connected to suspect Russian activity, according to the company.

Mr. Long said it’s well known within the industry that Eastern Europe and Russia are centers for troll farms.

Last week, Mr. Warner addressed the issue in Washington at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance Summit, where a collection of the nation’s leading intelligence officials were heatedly debating the extend to which Russian interference potentially hurt Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton or benefited Mr. Trump.

Mr. Warner said the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to hear more from Facebook and Twitter about the Russian influence on the 2016 presidential campaign.

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