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17th of January 2018

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How to See if You Followed Russian Propaganda on Facebook

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It's easy to just blindly like and follow things on Facebook. You might not be fooled by accounts that appear spammy and/or fake, but there are plenty of people who have a more cavalier attitude about engaging with different entities on Facebook.

If you have a few friends or loved ones like that, it might be worth sending them a link to Facebook's just-launched tool for checking whether a user has liked or followed a page linked to Russian propaganda. Yes, Russian propaganda.

As we reported in November, Facebook has been working on a tool that would allow users to see if they followed entities created by the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential election. The agency, backed by the Kremlin, created approximately 470 fake accounts and used them to publish around 80,000 divisive political posts on Facebook. And the social networking spamming was successful—around 29 million users first saw the posts, and engagement only grew once these people started liking, commenting, and sharing the posts themselves.

"We are taking action to be more transparent about the foreign interference in the 2016 US Elections. We've taken down fake accounts and Pages by the Internet Research Agency and have shared this information with Congress," reads a Facebook help article about the propaganda-checking tool.

Using the tool is easy. Just pull it up and wait for it to display any IRA-related pages or accounts you have followed on Facebook—on Instagram, too, if you also allow it to access your account on that service. The tool won't tell you whether you've been exposed to any spammy posts or content the IRA created, only whether you made an active choice to to receive more information from a spammy page (or many).

Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter took a grilling before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in late October and early November, where both Democratic and Republican senators expressed a range of concern over the social networks' inability to control widespread propaganda.

"For a relatively small amount of money, with a dedicated group of hackers who are creating fake accounts, and the ability of them to manipulate a number of bots, you can drive any story to vast numbers of people," Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told Recode prior to the hearing.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also did not mince words.

"We are not going to go away, gentlemen. And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won't do," she said. "You have a huge problem on your hands. And the US is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going to follow I'm sure. Because you bear this responsibility."

None of the three tech companies support the Honest Ads Act, a bill introduced in mid-October that would require companies to reveal any foreign agents attempting to buy political advertising on their networks.

"What we've tried to do is a very light touch. We don't want to slow down innovation. We don't want to slow down individuals' willingness to use the Internet or use these social media platforms. But in an era where $1.4 billion was spent on political advertising in the 2016 campaigns—and that number's only going to go up—there needs to be equality between traditional radio and broadcast and social media and Internet political advertising," Warner told NPR in an interview.

Twitter is still working on an "Advertising Transparency Center" that would show details for all advertising running on the service, including campaign lengths, all creative associated with an advertising campaign, and any ads that have been specifically targeted to different kinds of users. For political advertising, users will also be able to see more information about the entities funding the advertising campaigns, which demographics groups are targeting, and historical data about a group's advertising spend.

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