A top British lawmaker has accused Facebook of failing to thoroughly investigate whether Russia attempted to influence last year’s vote to leave the European Union after the social media giant said it found only three suspicious advertisements.
Damian Collins, chairman of the British Parliament’s culture and media committee, said on December 13 that Facebook limited its investigation to only one source of advertisements: the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg facility that U.S. intelligence agencies have said was the troll farm the Russian government used to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election.
“It would appear that no work has been done by Facebook to look for other fake accounts and pages that could be linked to Russian-backed agencies and which were active during the EU referendum, as I requested,” Collins said.
He repeated his request for Facebook to conduct a comprehensive search for “any adverts and pages paid for or set up by Russian-linked accounts” that were active before and during the June 23, 2016 vote to leave the EU, which passed by a narrow margin.
Facebook disputed Collins’ characterization of its search, saying it took his request “very seriously.”
In a letter to Britain’s Electoral Commission, Facebook said it found 470 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, and said the agency had spent only 97 cents on three ads seen by British audiences during the Brexit campaign.
Facebook said each of the three ads actually were targeted to U.S. audiences and concerned immigration, not the referendum on whether Britain should pull out of the EU. It estimated that the ads delivered “approximately 200 impressions to U.K. viewers over four days in May 2016.”
The issue of immigration was an important one in the British vote as well as the U.S. presidential election in November 2016.
British citizens who voted to exit the EU and U.S. citizens who voted to elect Donald Trump as president frequently cited competition for jobs from immigrants and the payment of welfare benefits to immigrants as reasons for their choice.
Researchers have said the Internet Research Agency employs hundreds of people to post content on such socially divisive issues as immigration on social media in what appears to be a Kremlin strategy to foment discord in the West.
Some of the Russian ads and posts that Facebook said earlier this year reached as many as 126 million American users during the presidential campaign carried messages linking immigrants to crime and lost jobs.
Russia denies meddling in Brexit or the U.S. election.
While Facebook said it found little evidence of Russian efforts to influence the Brexit vote on its network, the media giant said Russian operatives spent $100,000 on advertising aimed at influencing the U.S. presidential election.
The New York Times reported on December 13 that another soon-to-be-released study by the Oxford Internet Institute investigating whether Russian operatives used Twitter and YouTube to try to influence the Brexit vote also found little evidence of meddling.
The author of that study, Oxford Professor Philip Howard, told the Times that “Russian activity during Brexit seems to have been minimal… The real source of misinformation about the Brexit debate was homegrown.”
The Times said Russia’s English-language Sputnik and RT media outlets were very active during the Brexit campaign, however, pushing the agenda of British parties calling for an exit from the bloc.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and the New York Times