Facebook rep says site takes Russia meddling ‘very seriously’

Sharon Yang of Facebook’s civics engagement unit spoke at a University of Minnesota forum on social media and elections. Brian Bakst | MPR News

A leader in Facebook’s civics engagement unit told a Minnesota audience Thursday that the social media company is cooperating with federal authorities probing how the platform was used by attempted election meddlers from Russia last year.

Sharon Yang, a manager of Facebook’s Global Politics and Government Outreach team, shared limited details during a forum at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School on the intersection between social media and elections.  Yang said Facebook has deactivated nearly 500 Russian-linked accounts behind ads attempting to sow division in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Facebook disclosed last week that $100,000 in ads were purchased through the accounts deemed to be fake.

“Even with this small amount we take this very, very seriously and we shared our findings with U.S. authorities that are investigating election-related issues and we will continue to investigate as well,” Yang said.

She added, “As a platform, we are committed to integrity and authenticity on Facebook and believe the platform is a place for genuine civic engagement.”

Yang’s presentation was mostly about tools Facebook is using to connect voters with sound information and representatives in government.

The forum was organized in part by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who applauded Facebook for its voter registration drives during the last campaign. On one day alone, the site helped drive almost 70,000 people to the Minnesota online registration portal, shattering the prior one-day record.

Simon used his own speech to stress the need for greater investment in cybersecurity and upgrades to voting equipment.

“The cybersecurity challenges are real. The headlines we all saw and felt and experienced last year and up to this date I should say are real. And those threats are real,” Simon said.

Simon said he has formed a cybersecurity team in his office and hired an outside consultant to assess possible vulnerabilities.

He said Minnesota’s election infrastructure is fundamentally sound and has built-in protections against intrusion. “Minnesota is still old school. We still vote with pen and paper,” he said. “It’s hard to hack paper. That’s not the case everywhere.”

Simon also criticized President Donald Trump’s election integrity commission, saying the leadership is slanted and appears to be rushing to conclusions about voter fraud that are so far unfounded.

Simon, a first-term Democrat, defended his decision to withhold Minnesota data requested by the ad hoc panel. Simon said the commission seems intent on validating predetermined outcomes and is misusing materials it is getting from states.

“The data they do get, they seem poised to use it in ways that both don’t make sense and could really be dangerous,” Simon said. “Running it through databases that we know produce a lot of false positives, which is a fancy way of saying fingering the wrong people for illegal conduct when they did nothing wrong. I was not going to subject the people of Minnesota, any registered voter, to that kind of shoddy process.”

President Trump has long claimed that millions of people voted illegally in the last election.