Facebook Inc. FB -1.44% is contending with a new wave of criticism prompted by the U.S. indictment alleging that Russia manipulated social-media platforms—and by a Facebook executive’s attempts to address the issue.
The indictment against Russian companies and individuals described how an organization called the Internet Research Agency allegedly used Facebook, Twitter Inc., TWTR -1.64% and the YouTube arm of Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL 0.38% Google to sow discord in the U.S. starting in 2014. The document’s description of events showed that Facebook and its Instagram photo-sharing unit were particularly central to the alleged Russian attempts to influence U.S. public opinion.
Researchers who study social media said the indictment, secured by special counsel Robert Mueller, showed that Facebook was ill-prepared for such efforts. Facebook has more than 25,000 employees, but fewer than 100 Russian provocateurs armed with social-media savvy and widely available technological tools were able to manipulate its platform for years, the indictment says.
Comments by Facebook’s head of advertising, Rob Goldman, after the indictment was handed up Friday fueled further criticism. Mr. Goldman, writing on Twitter, said there are “easy ways to fight” the Russian campaign, starting with having a “well educated citizenry.” He also tweeted that the Russians’ main goal wasn’t to sway the 2016 election, but more broadly to sow division in the U.S.
Mr. Goldman’s series of eight tweets provoked more than 9,000 responses on Twitter, many of them angry.
“You really are not in a position to preach and your astonishing tweets have created confusion and anger,” Mainardo de Nardis, a senior executive at advertising giant Omnicom Group Inc., said in a tweet Sunday. “Enough damage done over the past 2+ years. In the absence of real actions silence would be appreciated.” Mr. de Nardis didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A Facebook spokesman said Mr. Goldman, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, had sent his tweets in a personal capacity. The company pointed to a statement from Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, saying, “Nothing we found contradicts the Special Counsel’s indictments.”
Russia’s government has repeatedly denied any government effort to influence the U.S. election.
Facebook has struggled for much of the past year to respond to mounting ire from users, politicians, customers and others over its role in facilitating the spread of misinformation and divisive content.
The indictment shows that “there are lots of levers that get pulled in social media for the sake of manipulation and a lot of those levers aren’t even known by the companies themselves,” said Sam Woolley, an Oxford University research associate who has studied propaganda efforts on social-media platforms.
The indictment documented an unprecedented manipulation campaign targeting Facebook, its Instagram platform, Twitter and YouTube. Starting in 2014, the Russians built an influence operation that drew followers to bogus accounts that spread disinformation, organized U.S. demonstrations and even paid a person to dress up like Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform at a West Palm Beach, Fla., rally, the indictment says.
While much of the attention around the Russian manipulation focused on its efforts to stoke divisions ahead the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is clear the campaign continued since then. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that some of the Russian-backed social-media accounts posted divisive messages at least as recently as last August.
The Twitter comments of Mr. Goldman, Facebook’s head of advertising, also fueled disagreement about the intent of the Russian efforts. One of Mr. Goldman’s tweets said “swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal” of the Russian ads, and that “the majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election.”
On Saturday, President Donald Trump cited Mr. Goldman’s comment in support of the idea that Russia’s actions didn’t affect the election.
Following criticism that he was obscuring the intent of the Russians, Mr. Goldman later tweeted that “the Russian campaign was certainly in favor of Mr. Trump.” He also dialed back some of his claims. “I am only speaking here about the Russian behavior on Facebook. That is the only aspect that I observed directly,” he tweeted.
Clint Watts, a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute who studied the Russian influence campaign, said the ads bought on Facebook were only “a much smaller part of a very large effort.”
“Mr. Goldman should have stayed silent,” Mr. Watts said, adding that playing down the effect of the influence campaign risked further angering Americans. “The public is upset that they got duped on Facebook’s platform. Facebook got duped,” he said. “It makes it seem like they don’t get it.”
While Facebook’s role in the Russian campaign is in the spotlight, some researchers who have studied the efforts note that it was far from the only institution to fall short.
“Let’s not mince words. The Obama administration did not react quickly enough to this problem. The intelligence community did not react quickly enough to this problem,” said Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Facebook has said it is taking a number of steps to prevent efforts like the Russian campaign from happening again, including hiring 10,000 employees tasked with policing hate speech, as well as coming up with ways to uproot fake accounts. Facebook officials also have emphasized that the company provided information to Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Goldman, too, said Facebook is taking “aggressive steps to prevent this sort of meddling in the future,” including verification for all political advertisers. Still, his comments struck some observers as tone deaf.
“It was an almost perfect example of Silicon Valley overconfidence and lack of sophistication when it comes to politics,” said Josh Hendler, former director of technology for the Democratic National Committee, which suffered a cyberattack ahead of the 2016 election that U.S. officials blamed on Russia.
—Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.
Appeared in the February 20, 2018, print edition as ‘Facebook Feels Heat In Probe Of Russia.’