Twitter, Google And Facebook Called To Testify Before US Congress Over Russian Campaign Ads

The US House and Senate Intelligence Committees have asked executives from major tech companies to appear in open hearings tied to the committees' Russia investigations. The requests follow a week in which Facebook, Google and Twitter have faced intense scrutiny over foreign ad campaigns that sought to influence US voters prior to the 2016 US presidential election.

Photo: Getty

The Senate Intelligence hearing will likely take place on November 1. The request for the tech giants to appear before the panel was confirmed to Gizmodo by a Senate aide. Representatives Mike Conaway and Adam Schiff announced the House hearing in a joint statement that did not name the tech companies involved.

"In the coming month, we will hold an open hearing with representatives from tech companies in order to understand how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election," the senators said.

Facebook has taken the brunt of the lawmaker's interest, having announced last week at least $US150,000 ($190,963) in Facebook ads were purchased by Russians during the US election. Around $US100,000 ($127,308) worth of ads were paid for by a St Petersburg-based company with known Kremlin ties; the ads were spread out across 470 unique accounts. Another 2000 ads were found to originate from Russian language accounts using US internet addresses. Facebook has agreed to deliver the ads for review by both the House and Senate intelligence committees. Twitter is scheduled to brief Congressional staffers tomorrow about Russian influence campaigns on its platform.

On Wednesday, The Daily Beast reported that an account impersonating an American Muslim organisation was among the accounts deactivated by Facebook "as part of its acknowledgement of substantial inauthentic network activity linked to Russia". The page, which amassed 268,000 followers, was used to spread memes falsely claiming that Sen John McCain -- an ardent Kremlin foe -- had help to bolster ISIS. Other posts purportedly claimed that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton "admits #America created, funded and armed Al Qaeda ISIS terrorists". Facebook declined to comment for the Beast's story, but did not challenge its findings.

Earlier this week, a Washington Post report revealed that Facebook ads attributed to a Russian covert influence campaign sought to inflame resentment toward Clinton by highlighting support for her among Muslim women. Other posts attributed to the Russian trolls promoted Black Lives Matter, while simultaneously running ads that portrayed the group as "a rising political threat".

Democrats appear divided over how to address what is increasingly seen as a growing threat by a foreign rival to the US election process. Sen Mark Warner, the senate panel's ranking member, has drafted legislation with Sen Amy Klobuchar that would require Facebook and other social networks to disclose who pays for political ads and which audiences are targeted. Another group of Democrats, including Sen Ron Wyden, who also sits on the panel, have asked the Federal Election Commission to take control and impose new rules for online campaign ads.

Neither solution currently enjoys bipartisan support; there's only a single Democrat on the Federal Election Commission. That would appear to leave executives such as Mark Zuckerberg almost entirely in control of how online political ad campaign are handled -- even those surreptitiously launched by foreign actors.

Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook would increase its vetting of political ads and require them to be accompanied by disclosures revealing what page financed them.