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Our view: Kudos to Franken for Facebook questions

Franken attends a Senate committee hearing. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara.

Herald editorial board

Kudos to Sen. Al Franken for serving as a worthy interrogator on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The latest was during a hearing last week.

Franken, a Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota, refused to let an official from Facebook off the hook. The hearing was to learn how and why Facebook, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, accepted political advertisements that were paid for with Russian currency.

Answering on behalf of Facebook was Colin Stretch, Facebook's vice president and general counsel.

A few highlights:

Franken: "How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points, and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia? Those are two data points — American political ads and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?"

Stretch: "... In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed and we are now focused ..."

Franken, interrupting: "People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They're political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. ... You can't put together rubles with a political ad and go, 'Hmm, those two data points spell out something bad'?"

Stretch: "Senator, it's a signal we should have been alert to and in hindsight, it's one we missed."

Franken: "OK, OK. Yeah. Will Facebook commit not to accepting political ads paid for with foreign money in the future? Say, with rubles or the North Korean won? ...

Stretch: "Senator, our goal is to require all political advertisers, regardless of currency, to provide documentation information demonstrating that they are authorized to advertise. The currency signal ..."

Franken, interrupting: "... Just answer yes or no. Can you do that? You are the chief legal counsel for Facebook."

Stretch: "I can tell you we are not going to permit political advertising by foreign actors. The reason I am hesitating on foreign currency is that it's relatively easy for bad actors to switch currency. It's a signal, but it's not enough.

Franken: "Why would anyone use the North Korean won?"

Stretch: "Senator, our goal is to make sure we're addressing all forms of abuse ...."

Franken: "My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better."

That's our wish, too. Whether the Russians really swayed the election we don't know. But it's obvious Russia is trying to stir things up in the United States — Franken rightly called it an "attack on our democracy" — and that country's fake news stories and potentially illegal advertisements contribute to political anger boiling in America.

All political ads should include a disclaimer that tells who paid for them. Evidently, that didn't always happen in 2016, but it also isn't the only problem. Russians, it appears, were spreading lies via America's social media networks.

It'll take pointed questions — like those last week from Franken — before real answers and solutions can be found.

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