Attorneys for Facebook, Google, and Twitter appeared on Capitol Hill today to testify as part of ongoing investigations into Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 US election.
The companies - all of which were initially slow to acknowledge their role in the information war that took root as early as 2015 - have as of this month confirmed the existence of an extensive misinformation campaign launched via social media to influence American voters. Today's hearing focused largely on how much the tech companies knew and how much they have since learned of foreign operations aimed at meddling with the 2016 US elections - both through paid political ads and organic posts now believed to have reached a considerable portion of the American population.
One the eve of their appearance before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism, each of the companies either published or leaked information that drastically expanded the known scope of the Russian efforts. Facebook, which had previously announced that 10 million Americans had been exposed to approximately 3000 ads purchased by Kremlin-directed trolls, has now conceded that as many as 126 million Americans may have viewed propaganda across its platform.
In opening remarks, Facebook's representative, Colin Stretch, expressed shock and disgust over how the company's platform had been used to maliciously spread propaganda during the US election. Facebook's internal investigation, he said, revealed that over a two year period, Russian-bought accounts had created ads and posts he described as both "inflammatory" and "downright offensive". Many of the ads had been used to promote other pages which in turn posted similarly divisive content.
"Our goal is to bring people closer together," Stretch said of Facebook. "These foreign actors sought to drive people apart."
Three of Silicon Valley's biggest tech companies will speak to three different congressional subcommittees on Wednesday and Thursday to finally get to the bottom of, well, a lot of issues. Top priority is to discuss Russia's use of online ads and social media to influence the 2016 US election. Here's how you can watch it all live, no pay TV required.
Twitter's representative, Sean Edgett, said that Twitter had likewise observed a wide range of "automated and malicious" activity surrounding the US election. In total, Twitter has identified and removed 2752 accounts tied to the Russian influence campaign - thousands more than had been initially disclosed earlier this month. Edgett described as "unacceptable" the abuse of Twitter's platform by foreign entities to disrupt US politics. "We agree we must do better to prevent it," he said.
Google representative Richard Salgado said his company is currently engaged in a comprehensive review across its platforms to "understand whether individuals that appear to be connected to government-backed entities" are involved in disseminating propaganda for the purpose of interfering in the US election. Salgado said that Google had identified 18 YouTube channels the company believes are tied to a Russian propaganda outfit. In a post on Tuesday, Google said that the videos on those channels had been seen roughly 309,000 times - but added that fewer than three per cent of them had received more than 5000 views.
In response to a question from Sen Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, Facebook's representative confirmed the existence of a misinformation campaign dating back as far as 2015. The campaign was aimed at "creating discord between Americans," Graham said, predominantly for the purpose of disparaging former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Russian efforts continued after the US election, he said, with attempts to undermine President Donald Trump's legitimacy. Stretch affirmed that he agreed with the senator's conclusion.
The Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based "troll farm" run by Yevgeny Prigozhin - a Russian oligarch and Putin confidant - has been accused of propagating most of the content aimed at US voters, including the 3000 Facebook ads, which the House Intelligence Committee intends to release publicly this week. Facebook has described the content as being primarily focused on "divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun writes".
The Russian government was formally accused of attempting to undermine confidence in the election in December, and prior to leaving office former President Barack Obama issued sanctions against Moscow while ordering the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies. In January, the US Intelligence Community published a declassified version of a report concluding the Kremlin had meddled in the 2016 US election specifically with the goal of "denigrating" former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It further assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had developed a "clear preference" for then-President-elect Donald Trump.
The Russian government adamantly denies all charges. President Trump has himself repeatedly sought to discredit the intelligence community's findings, portraying it as "fake news", while accusing Democrats of being sour over his victory.
Sen Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, asked Twitter about how it deals with "legitimate and lawful, but phony American shell corporations". Twitter's representative, Sean Edgett, replied: "We're working on the best approach to getting to know the clients."
Facebook, similarly asked by Sen John Neely Kennedy of Louisiana about how it identifies which entities fund the roughly five million advertisers on its site every month, responded: "To your question about essentially seeing behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no."
Sen Feinstein then questioned Google over the "preferred status" given to the Russian state-funded media outlet RT News, which Feinsten regarded as a "Russian propaganda arm", an assessment supported by the US Intelligence Community. (RT News denies coordinating with Moscow to fulfil President Putin's agenda.)
Google representative Richard Salgado responded: "There was a period of time where Russia Today qualified really because of algorithms, to participate in an advertising program that opened up some inventory for them. It's objective standards around popularity and some other criteria to be able to participate in that program. Platforms or publishers like RT drop in and out of the program as things change."
Salgado added that Google took no action against RT News after the Intelligence Community assessment, insisting instead that its removal from the advertising program was result of a drop-off in viewership. Nothing about RT News or its content "meant that it stayed in or stayed out," he said.
Sen Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, asked Facebook's Stretch whether or not there are any "outside enforcers" of its policies, to which Stretch responded there were not.
In response to a question from Klobuchar about how social media might conform to rules around political ads current imposed on television and radio, Twitter representative Sean Edgett replied: "We're thinking hard about that. We don't have anything to announce today." Klobuchar is a cosponsor of the Honest Ads Act, which seeks to align rules for political ads on social media with those placed on more traditional broadcasters.
Following the Honest Ads Act's introduction this month in the US, both Twitter and Facebook announced new disclosure requirements for advertisements, with special provisions for those containing political content.
Sen Ted Cruz used much of his time - each senator was allotted five minutes - to chastise Google's representative about how the company's search results present information about political candidates. (The implication was that Google's results are "left leaning".) He also mentioned a report from last year, originally published by Gizmodo, in which Facebook employees said they routinely suppressed news stories "of interest to conservative readers" from the site's "trending" news section.
"Just last month, Twitter barred Representative Marsha Blackburn from advertising her campaign launch video," Cruz continued, "because it deemed a line about her efforts to investigate Planned Parenthood to be inflammatory." Blackburn's ad reportedly referenced allegations that Planned Parenthood had "trafficked in unborn baby parts". (Planned Parenthood was cleared of allegations that it "sold fetal tissue" last year after an exhaustive congressional investigation launched by conservative lawmakers.)
The most heated exchange came when it was Sen Al Franken's turn to question the tech companies. "At the same time Russia was conducting cyber-espionage against American political organisations, they deployed this propaganda program on your platform - in some cases paying for it in rubles - so I want to understand why no one seems to have caught on to the Russian effort earlier," the senator said.
Franken then asked why Facebook, "which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points," was unable to determine that American campaign ads were coming from Russia. Facebook's Stretch replied that it was a threat Facebook's security team was "intensely focused on" and "effectively addressed", adding: "In hindsight, I think we should have had a broader lens; there are signals we missed."
Franken interrupted Stretch, loudly emphasising: "OK, people are buying ads on your platform with rubles! You put billions of data points together all the time, that's what I hear these platforms do. They're the most sophisticated things put together by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can't put together rubles with a political ad and go, 'Hmm, those two data points spell out something bad.'"
"Senator, it's a signal we should have been alert to," Stretch said. "And in hindsight, it's one we missed."
Tomorrow, the tech companies will continue their testimony in public hearings before by the Senate and House intelligence committees - at 12:30AM and 5:00AM AEDT, respectively. We've posted information here on how you can watch via livestream.