Tech giants testify for second day in a row, claim investigations incomplete
By: Rachel Hopmayer
WASHINGTON – The approximate number of Americans exposed to Russian election interference has risen to 15 times its original estimate from 10 million to over 150 million, according to testimonies provided by the general counsel for Facebook, Twitter and Google yesterday.
Lawyers representing the tech goliaths testified on Capitol Hill for two days in a row. Yesterday, the three companies were heard and questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was their seventeenth open hearing of the year and twelfth focused on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Facing intense scrutiny from Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA), Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch testified that while their investigation are still not complete, the company estimates that over 150 million Americans were exposed to political propaganda paid for and created by Russian troll farms. One such farm was called the Internet Research Agency and based in St. Petersburg.
Approximately 126 million Facebook users located in the United States were exposed to Russian state-sponsored posts of disinformation, but Stretch brought forward at least 16 million additionally exposed Instagram users beginning in October 2016. Stretch also added a potential four million Instagram users exposed to paid propaganda prior to that period.
“The data on Instagram is not as complete,” Stretch said. Facebook bought Instagram, a popular photo-sharing app, for $1 billion in cash and stock in 2012.
“Sir, we’ve had this hearing scheduled for months,” Vice Chairman Warner said. “I find your answer very disappointing.”
Warner vehemently pressed Stretch to a series of questions about nearly 30,000 Facebook accounts the company claimed to swiftly tackle and remove from the platform when they picked up on their activity meddling in French elections earlier this year. Warner repeatedly asked Stretch if the same accounts removed in those actions were reexamined for activity during the American president election.
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Stretch said after trying to avoid a direct affirmation or disconfirmation.
“I have more than a little bit of frustration that many of us on the committee have been raising this issue since the beginning of this year, and our claims were frankly blown off by the leadership of your companies,” said Warner. “Your companies know more about Americans in many ways than the U.S. government and the idea that you had no idea this was happening strains my credibility.”
Vice Chairman Warner’s frustration with the incomplete analysis and participation from top executives of these companies were echoed by the rest of the committee as well.
“I’m disappointed you are here and not your CEOs,” Senator Angus King (I-ME) said. “If you could take a message back from this committee, if we go through this exercise again, we would appreciate seeing the top people that make this decision.”
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. You are the biggest distributors of news” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). “You cannot allow what is going on to the United States of America. I wish that your CEOs would be here. They need to answer to this.”
Under questioning, Twitter faced pressure for the degree that their profiles allow anonymity. Twitter does not require identity verification of any kind, but this allows automated bots to function in a higher degree on their website.
“We don’t require you to verify identity,” said Sean Edgett, Twitter’s deputy general counsel. “We see the power of Twitter being used like folks that are political dissidents in other countries.”
Twitter, Facebook and Google all agreed that they had not done enough to combat Russia’s interference in the presidential elections and influence in social issues and debates within the United States since the election.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked all three companies: “Are you satisfied with your platform’s response to foreign interference in the 2016 election?”
“We are constantly doing better,” Kent Walker, general counsel for Google, said. Under further scrutiny, Walker retreated to saying “we could have done more.”
“No, we need to do more,” said Twitter’s Edgett.
“We have learned a lot from the 2016 election cycle and trolling behavior,” Stretch later said. “I think we have room to improve industry cooperation. There’s a real good model for this in how we have shared expertise and threat information in other areas of abuse.”
Ultimately, while all representation said that the companies would be willing to work with legislators to somewhat regulate the social media industry, the general counsels for the Twitter, Facebook and Google do not support the Honest Ads Act in its present form.
The Honest Ads Act was co-authored by Vice Chairman Mark Warner with Senators Amy Klobluchar (D-MN) and John McCain (R-AZ) and was introduced to the Senate on October 19, 2017. The bill would require internet companies and social media platforms to archive political advertisements and publicly disclose the source of funding just as television commercials and other traditional media forms are required to do.
Edgett insisted that while Twitter is “very supportive of the direction” of legislative action, the Honest Ads Act needs “fine-tuning.”
The tech companies tried rebranding themselves in testimony as information sharers because of their users, distancing themselves from being a news platform or information publishing company at its core.
“You are the modern Times Square and the postmaster,” Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) said.
“I hope you hear it loud and clear from this committee there are lots of questions. This is not an opposition to free speech. This is actually a battle to try to protect free speech,” said Senator James Lankford (R-OK). “We want to have good American dialogue.”