Questions for Facebook About Russia’s Use of Its Network

Many months after it became clear that Russians exploited Facebook to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, the reach and impact of Russia’s activities on the social network are still not fully known.

The indictment announced on Friday in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, charged 13 Russians and does not accuse Facebook or Instagram of any wrongdoing. But the names of those two networks appear 41 times in the indictment.

The dribble of information about Russian actors’ use of Facebook, as well as confusing messages coming from the company, has raised even more questions. Here’s a look at what we know and what other information Facebook might be able to provide.

So far, Facebook executives have implied that the influence campaign was minor in the scheme of things.

The company has released numbers that suggest the Russians reached a large number of people. In testimony to Congress last year, Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, said that roughly 126 million people may have been “served content” from a Facebook page associated with the Internet Research Agency, the notorious Russian troll factory, over a two-year period.

But Mr. Stretch added that this content was a smidgen of the total content available across Facebook:

And on Friday, Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president for ads, noted that more than half of the Russian Facebook ads (56 percent) were served after the 2016 election.

Quoting tiny fractions suggests content on Facebook gets drowned out in a torrent of information. But the company’s whole business model is based on giving ads and posts prominence in the feeds of well-targeted users.

Questions for Facebook:

Mr. Mueller’s latest indictment says that, after the middle of 2016, Russians often talked about targeting “purple states,” or those in which the number of Republican and Democratic voters are close. The indictment also describes the Russians as focused on Florida, which Mr. Trump ended up winning.

Others have asserted in the past that Russia did not appear to focus its social media efforts on swing states. As Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, noted last year:

Questions for Facebook:

Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, has done revealing work on Facebook’s Russia-linked pages that is more detailed than anything the company has made public. Mr. Albright’s data, obtained using CrowdTangle, an analytics tool owned by Facebook, shows the speed with which the Russia-backed groups grew.

Blacktivist, a Russia-linked group whose often inflammatory content set it apart from legitimate groups championing African-American rights, had 14,000 followers at the end of 2015. By the time its Facebook page was shut down last year, it had 390,000, according to Mr. Albright’s data — a hugely successful ramp up that took Blacktivist’s total followers above that for Black Lives Matter. Other Russian-created groups, like Heart of Texas, also showed huge increases in followers.

Questions for Facebook:

It may well be the case that Russian disinformation did not swing the election for Mr. Trump. But it may have had far more of an impact than the public knows. And Facebook is almost certainly sitting on data that could deepen the nation’s understanding of what went on.

“I can’t imagine what it would it look like if we had all the data,” Mr. Albright said.