Congress drills down on Russian infiltration of social media

Congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election have split along partisan lines – but lawmakers from both parties agree that social media companies must do more to prevent future manipulation.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware points to a poster depicting an example of a misleading Internet ad, as executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testify during a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Even as congressional probes into Russian interference in America’s 2016 election are splitting along partisan lines, one area has become an equal-opportunity field of inquiry: Russian use of social media to reach millions of Americans with divisive political propaganda.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were on Capitol Hill answering questions about Russian infiltration of their platforms, what they are doing about it, and why it took them so long to acknowledge the problem and its scope. Under US law, it’s illegal for foreign governments, companies, or individuals to spend money to influence US elections.

The recent revelation that the Hillary Clinton campaign funded a salacious dossier on then-candidate Donald Trump that relied on information from Russia has sent House and Senate committees looking into Russian election interference on two different tracks. Republicans are following the Clinton trail, while Democrats are looking at whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The one committee that is still moving forward in a bipartisan manner – for now – is the Senate Intelligence Committee. And one issue that seems to unite Democrats and Republicans is social media. It’s something that deeply influences public opinion, that politicians of all stripes use, and that is clearly vulnerable to outside forces that want to undermine American democracy and the American way of life.

That’s not to say lawmakers are totally aligned as to the nature of the problem. In their questions, Republicans tended to broaden the scope of their inquiries to other Internet threats, such as sowing cultural division generally, terrorism, and human trafficking. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina opened Wednesday’s hearing with a defense of the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Democrats stayed focused on Russia and the election. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who took part in both days of hearings complained of “vague answers” to her specific questions on Tuesday and said that the country is seeing “the beginning of cyber-warfare.”

If Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg was originally incredulous that fake ads and content planted by foreign actors could influence an election, by the time of the hearing, the company’s lawyer was not. Colin Stretch told senators that Facebook is “deeply concerned” about such threats.

In submitted testimony, Mr. Stretch said that about 126 million Americans could have seen content from a fake Facebook page associated with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm,” as the page was liked and shared over the course of the two-year election cycle. That’s 40 percent of America’s population that received the content in their Facebook news feeds (though whether they looked at it is another question).

Twitter’s acting General Counsel Sean Edgett said that Russian bots sent out about 1.4 million election-related tweets, generating about 288 million views. Google found only two accounts operated by known or suspected government-backed agencies but around 1,100 videos on YouTube that were uploaded by such actors.

Corrective measures

The companies are taking corrective measures – some just announced last week, as the hearings neared. Facebook has disabled millions of fake accounts in the United States. It’s hiring 1,000 people to monitor advertising, investing in artificial intelligence to more easily recognize fake ads and take them down, and will soon begin testing a way for users to see who is paying for political ads.

Twitter has also suspended fake accounts, but as Mr. Edgett admits, it’s hard to ferret out the original source behind a shell corporation. “That’s a problem.” Indeed, that was a sharp line of questioning on Tuesday from Sen. John Kennedy (R) of Louisiana.

“I’m trying to get us down from La-La Land here,” Senator Kennedy said. “The truth of the matter is, you have five million advertisers that change every month. Every minute. Probably every second. You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?”

Two Senate Democrats and a Republican have sponsored bipartisan legislation that would require social media companies to identify who is funding political ads on their platforms, just as broadcasters do. But depending on how such legislation is ultimately worded, that could be potentially “devastating” to a social media company, says Clifford Lampe, a social media expert at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Online platforms like Google and Facebook depend on vast automated systems for selling ads, he says. Requirements for transparency in ad funding could range from adding a check box or information field to learn more about the advertiser, to requiring human checkers. “Legislation that would require human checkers would have serious consequences for the companies, since their ad sales are predicated on volume.”

But Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, says that if a radio station in her home state can figure out how to abide by the rules of airing political ads, so can “sophisticated” social media companies. “They are no different. They are media companies.”

News companies or not?

Whether these companies should be treated as publishers is a pertinent issue that could affect their regulation, and it’s one that was raised in the hearings. The executives maintained they are not news companies because they do not generate content – they are simply sharers of news content.

“That may be a distinction that is lost on most of us,” responded Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, which seemed to indicate an open door to tighter oversight.

As Facebook, Twitter, and Google grapple with what they admit is new territory to them, Congress will be watching closely. But at least the American public now knows the extent to which Russia has used – and is still attempting to use – these platforms, says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine.

“One of the greatest contributions that I believe the Senate Intelligence Committee has made to this investigation has been to expose the role of social media and the fact that social media was used very heavily in the fall election,” says Senator Collins, a member of the committee that heard testimony from the executives on Wednesday.

“It perplexes me that some of the social media companies would accept payments in rubles for a political ad and not have seen a big red flag that this would be in violation of federal law.”

Monitor staff writer David Sloan contributed to this report.

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