By Liam Bond
(Senate Intelligence Committee examines an exhibit during Wednesday’s hearing)
The Senate Intelligence Committee and representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google agreed Wednesday that the scope of Russian meddling through social media went far beyond simply the 2016 election.
Members of the committee voiced their frustration for the lack of problem-solving that that three tech giants had in determining ways to minimize Russian meddling through social media moving forward, which has been and still is a legitimate issue. The committee also set straight the power that these companies have within American society, and how their ultimate failure to prevent Russian meddling has affected American democracy.
“You’ve discussed your response to these attacks, but it is self-evident in relation to the power your platforms now have, in the past election, you failed,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.
Colin Stretch, Sean Edgett and Kent Walker, who were all acting as general counsel for Facebook, Twitter and Google, respectively, each agreed that more could have been done to tighten the process of finding fake accounts, news and bots, and determining how many people were exposed and where.
“We know that the Russians were involved in the French election, we know that they were involved in the German elections, we are now learning that they are involved in the separation of Spain, and my understanding is they’ve set up shop in Scotland,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said. “This is a sophisticated, worldwide strategy, that applied here in 2016.”
It’s no longer a question of if the Russians meddled through social media, but rather, what exactly was there objective or motive?
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) brought forward real examples of polarizing Russian ads that targeted Maine’s governor, Paul LePage (R). “The primary purpose of Russian’s active measures is to exploit and to aggravate the divisions in American society, and to undermine public confidence in our democratic institutions,” Sen. Collins said.
\She noted three unpaid Facebook ads, two of which called for removing LePage for what they labeled as his white supremacist and racist policies and views, and a third that had defended comments LePage had made about confederate monuments. “The posts are just three among 80,000 that reveal the Russian playbook of playing both sides off against each other and of sewing discord and division with inflammatory rhetoric,” Sen. Collins said.
Collins wasn’t the only senator who had shown real and consequential examples of Russian meddling. Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) mentioned two Russian created Facebook groups, the “Heart of Texas” and “United Muslims of America.” The groups, whose messages stood in stark contrast with each other, created events on Facebook to take place at the same time in the same place. Supporters for each side showed up, resulting in a stand off between followers of the two groups.
Vice-chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) mentioned that a Russian-created Tennessee GOP party group had nearly 150,000 followers, while the actual GOP Tennessee party group had only 13,000 followers.
In order to combat Russian meddling through social media, many of the senators asked the tech giants to grasp the scope of their reach within American society and recognize their role in upholding the values of American democracy.
“I would argue that you have a specific obligation given your reach in American society,” Sen. Collins said.
“We agree that we have a special responsibility here,” Stretch responded. “We value the trust that users place in our services and when they show up to connect with friends and family and to discuss issues, they need to know that the discourse they see is authentic.”
Many senators tried to understand social media’s role within journalism. Are these platforms responsible for what is being published, and should they adhere to many of the same rules and standards applied to journalists? Sen. King even suggested something like a dateline for posts, to which the three general counsel men responded would raise privacy issues.
Privacy issues are of course a big concern for Facebook, Twitter and Google. As many senators highlighted, through the data that these three companies collect, they know more about the American people than the government does. However, many senators remained frustrated with the lack of cooperation between these companies and the intelligence agencies.
“We’re not offering our service for surveillance to any government,” Edgett said.
“I hope that Twitter will reconsider its policies, when it’s dealing with friendly intelligence services in countries like the United States and the U.K., as opposed to adversarial countries like Russia and China,” Sen Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) replied.
Although privacy was certainly discussed, both the committee and the representatives for Facebook, Google and Twitter came to the conclusion that more could have been done to deal with Russian meddling then, and continue to deal with it moving forward.
“We’re in a new information distribution world here, and we need to think about how to apply some of the principles that have helped us to assess that information, and I hope that you all will continue to develop policies,” Sen. King said.