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Facebook: Russian pages may have reached majority of U.S. users

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Manu Fernadez / AP

More than half of the Facebook's users in the United States were exposed to Russian attempts to sow discord before and after the 2016 presidential election, a company executive will tell lawmakers Tuesday, while arguing that the reach of the campaign was still limited given the platform's massive scale. Google and Twitter will also disclose that the Russian influence campaign stretched beyond what they've previously discussed publicly.

Why it matters: It demonstrates how Facebook's mechanics allowed the Russian operatives to reach far beyond just those people who followed their fake pages and account. Significantly, for lawmakers, it underscores that the roughly 3,000 ads that Facebook disclosed in September from the Russian pages were just one small piece of the puzzle.

According to written testimony obtained by Axios, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch will tell three congressional committees over the next two days that the company's "best estimate is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one" of the stories posted by roughly 470 Russian pages between June, 2015 and August, 2017. Facebook has 213 million monthly active users in the United States.

How it worked: Around 29 million users were exposed to content from the Russian pages directly, the company said. That amounted to approximately 80,000 pieces of content in the two-year period the company examined. That content was then shared, magnifying the reach of the pages broadly.

Decoded: When Facebook says content was "served" to users, it means that content appeared in their feeds, not that the users engaged with the content or even saw it for a meaningful amount of time. Ad buyers generally believe you have to see a message multiple times for it to have an effect on you.

Yes, but: Stretch will argue that the reach of the Russian campaign was a relative drop in the bucket compared to the large amount of content posted to Facebook during that period. "Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you'd have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the IRA," he'll say, adding, "Though the volume of these stories was a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook, any amount is too much."

Facebook is not the only one of the three companies testifying tomorrow that will acknowledge that the scale of Russian election meddling efforts were broader than they previously disclosed. The Washington Post reports that Google has said for the first time that over a thousand videos were uploaded to YouTube by Russian trolls on 18 separate channels.

  • Twitter will tell lawmakers that it has discovered thousands of previously-undisclosed accounts tied to the Russian troll farm behind the Facebook campaign, according to a sources familiar with its testimony.
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