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Facebook agrees to disclose US election ads bought by Russian agency

Facebook has bowed to political pressure by handing over 3,000 ads bought by a Russian agency with the intention of swaying last year's US election. Russia has denied placing the ads.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that the social network had handed over to US congressional investigators the contents of political advertisements purchased by a Russian agency.

The move comes as part of Zuckerberg's pledge to make political advertising on Facebook more "transparent." 

Facebook revealed earlier this month that it had sold some $100,000 (83,000 euros) worth of political advertising aimed at swaying the election to a Russian agency. Since then, US lawmakers have been pressuring Facebook to release the ads as part of their special investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. 

Russia on Friday denied buying the ads. "We don't know who places ads on Facebook and how," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. "We have never done it and the Russian side has never had anything to do with it."

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Facebook's initial reluctance to comply with the US request had prompted the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee to consider forcing company executives to testify as part of its probe into election meddling.

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However, announcing the company's decision to be more forthcoming when it comes to political advertising, Zuckerberg said that he doesn't "want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That's not what we stand for."

Read more: Facebook, Russia and the US elections - what you need to know

It marks the first time Facebook has agreed to open up its lucrative but extremely secret advertising operation to outside observers.

Following Zuckerberg's announcement, Adam Schiff, a top Democrat on the US House Intelligence Committee, said he now wanted to hear from other tech companies, such as Twitter and Google, on how they regulate their advertising.

"It will be important for the committee to scrutinize how rigorous Facebook's internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did," said Schiff.

Facebook overhauls political advertising

The social network's decision to hand over the ads to lawmakers comes as part of the company's vow to regulate its advertising platform.

Facebook will in future require anyone who purchases political ads on its platform to disclose both who is paying for them and all other campaigns that individual or agency is running.

The new set-up will allow outsiders to see how many different variants of a political ad are being used to target different groups and individuals, a crucial tactic used to measure an ad's effectiveness.

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Russian hackers to target German elections

Because the average user doesn't know "if you're seeing the same messages as everyone else" Facebook will "make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook," Zuckerberg said.

However, the contents of the ads ordered by congressional investigators will not be shared publicly, as the federal investigation will limit what Facebook can reveal, Zuckerberg said.

Facebook monitoring German election

Zuckerberg also disclosed that Facebook officials had found no instances attempted election-meddling in Germany, as the country heads to the polls on Sunday.

Read more: How Germany's politicians fight for votes

Germany's cyber defense is on full alert as the clock ticks down to the federal elections, with many fearing that a last-minute leak or bombshell intended to fan fears of Muslim migrants could spur a right-wing populist surge.

Moscow has been accused of stoking anti-migrant sentiment among Russian-Germans. In 2016, Russian media published reports — quickly debunked by German police — that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl was raped by three Muslim migrants, before accusing authorities and lawmakers of trying to cover up the incident.

The false reports sparked Russian-German street protests and even caused a top-level diplomatic row between Berlin and Moscow.

dm/ng (AP, Reuters, dpa)

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