US Social Media Companies Grilled on Russian Disinformation

November 01, 2017

Tempers flared as U.S. senators grilled Facebook, Twitter, and Google representatives about Russia's use of their platforms to spread disinformation in the 2016 presidential campaign, as well as the companies' efforts to prevent a repeat.

"You must do better to protect the American people and, frankly, all of your users from this kind of manipulation," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) told attorneys for the tech giants at a hearing on Wednesday.

"I don't think you get it," said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). "What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change… What we're talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a [U.S.] presidential election and sow conflict and discord all over this nation."

Feinstein stressed that social media companies bear ultimate responsibility for the material that gets posted on their sites.

"You've created these platforms, and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it -- or we [Congress] will," she said.

​Facebook, Twitter, and Google have acknowledged that entities traced to Russia used phony accounts and other tactics to spread inflammatory messages and fake advertising that reached millions of Americans in 2015 and 2016. Lawyers for the companies stressed they take the problem seriously and are aggressively combating it.

"All of these [phony foreign] accounts and pages violated our policies, and we removed them," said Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch. "Going forward, we are making significant investments. We're hiring more ad reviewers, doubling or more our security engineering efforts, putting in place tighter ad content restrictions, launching new tools to improve ad transparency, and requiring documentation from political ad buyers."

Stretch added that fake ads "were a very small fraction of the overall content on Facebook, but any amount is too much."

Republicans on the committee zeroed in on data from social media platforms showing Russia's disinformation campaign predated the Republican Party's nomination of Donald Trump last year, suggesting Moscow's overarching aim was to undermine American democracy, not to elect Trump as president.

"This is a whole lot broader than simply the 2016 election," said Senator James Risch (R-ID).

Burr said, "I'm here to tell you, this story does not simplify that easily."

The witnesses concurred.

From left, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter acting general counsel Sean Edgett and Google information security director Richard Salgado arrive for a Senate panel's hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 31, 2017, on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
"The large majority of the material we saw was socially-divisive rather than direct electoral advocacy," said Google's general counsel, Kent Walker.

Democrats, meanwhile, accused tech giants of being slow to recognize and combat the threat from abroad.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said the committee's concerns, stretching back to the beginning of the year, "were, frankly, blown off by the leaderships of your companies.

"Candidly, you companies know more about Americans, in many ways, than the United States government does. And the idea that you had no idea that any of this [foreign influence campaign] was happening strains my credibility," Warner added.

Twitter's acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, said the company has taken action against suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts. Similar efforts were announced by Facebook and Google, the parent company of YouTube.

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