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Black lawmakers press Facebook on Russia, diversity

William Douglas and Greg Gordon, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Facebook will boost its diversity efforts after hearing concerns from black lawmakers that Russian operatives used its social media platform to spread racially divisive messages during the 2016 elections, a top Facebook officer vowed Thursday.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a closed-door meeting that the company will appoint an African-American to its eight-member board, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting.

"What we tried to let her know is that she needs African-Americans up there who, when they see some of this stuff, will immediately say, 'Oh, no, wait a minute, this is the message they're trying to deliver and this is who it's going to impact,'" said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a CBC member who attended the meeting.

"An African-American would detect it quickly, and she eventually said 'You're right,'" he said.

Facebook announced last month that it had discovered that Russians had bought 5,200 ads on its platform between June 2015 and May 2017, and that 3,000 of the ads were purchased by a company linked to a Russian "troll farm" known for spreading propaganda for the Kremlin.

Facebook turned the ads over to the House and Senate intelligence committees and to a Justice Department special counsel. Each is investigating Russia's broad cyber offensive aimed at damaging 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and boosting Donald Trump's chances of winning last year's presidential election.

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Most of the ads targeted social issues such as immigration, gun rights and gay rights, Facebook's chief information security officer has said.

After meeting with Sandberg Wednesday, leaders of the House Intelligence Committee announced plans to make all the ads public. In a livestream interview Thursday with Axios co-founder Mike Allen, Sandberg said Facebook plans to help Congress understand how the Russians used the platform to target certain groups and geographic areas.

Sandberg met Thursday with the 49-member black caucus in a Capitol Hill conference room. Caucus members expressed alarm over ads that appeared to try to stoke racial passions over the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights issues.

"There's a real concern that people are using the platform of Facebook ... to divide this country," said Rep. Cedric Richmond, R-La. "And when it's a foreign country dividing our country and sowing seeds of division ... that is a real concern. And that was universally agreed to in that room, everyone felt the same way -- Facebook and the CBC."

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