Facebook announced plans Wednesday to start an investigation into the role of Russian agents in influencing 2016’s Brexit vote through the social media platform. The company said it will comprehensively search its records for activity on the part of possible Russian operatives at that time.
British officials have said that Facebook’s search for evidence of manipulation had been insufficient so far. While Russia has officially denied any manipulation of either the Brexit referendum or the 2016 US elections, officials in both the US and Britain have pressured companies like Facebook and Google to do more to investigate and combat such meddling.
Now, Facebook’s security experts will complete a broader analysis of historical data, according to a letter from Simon Milner, the company’s UK policy director, to Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British Parliament.
“We would like to carry out this work promptly and estimate it will take a number of weeks to complete,” according to the letter.
In December, the company said it found only 97 cents worth of advertising ahead of the Brexit vote that was linked to Russian agents from the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company involved in such influence operations. That investigation, however, was limited only to searching for advertising linked to this agency.
On Wednesday, Collins praised the move to step up the investigation, saying “They are best placed to investigate activity on their platform. I look forward to seeing the results of this investigation, and I‘m sure we will want to question Facebook about this when we know the outcome.”
In 2017, Facebook reported to the US officials that it had discovered 3,000 ads linked to suspected Russian agents posing as Americans and sowing discord on social media over issues such as immigration and racism.
In the days leading up to its presidential election last year, France suspended 30,00 Facebook accounts suspected of disseminating fake news, misinformation, and propaganda, apparently in an attempt at similar manipulation.
Last month, Facebook released a tool to help users determine if they’ve interacted with content from the Internet Research Agency, but faced criticism for the delayed rollout, doing little to alert users about the tool, and the limited scope of the effort.
Announcing the tool last November, the company said:
“It is important that people understand how foreign actors tried to sow division and mistrust using Facebook before and after the 2016 US election.”