UPDATED: Senate Intelligence Committee Reprimands Social Media on their Role in Russia’s Influence during 2016 Election

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Reporters and Senate Committee Members before hearing starts. Credit: Nicole Schaller

Nov 3, 2017, 9:30am

By Nicole Schaller

WASHINGTON–The Senate Intelligence Committee condemned social media’s top platforms Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Tuesday for being complicit on Russia’s influence in the 2016 presidential race. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) explained her concern to the companies.

“I don’t think you get it” said Feinstein. “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country.”

This hearing was the second of three congressional hearings this week where Facebook, Twitter, and Google general counsels testified. On Monday, the social media platforms disclosed that Russian agents deliberately created divisive and inflammatory Facebook posts that reached 126 million users, published over 131,000 Twitter messages, and uploaded more than 1,000 videos to Google owned YouTube.

Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) questioned each social media’s general counsel on if they were taking the matter seriously.

“I hear all your words, but I have more than a little bit of frustration that many of us on this 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, and dismissed,” Warner said. “Your earliest presentations showed a lack of resources, a lack of genuine effort and a lack of commitment.”

Warner expressed further discontent towards Twitter’s number of identified fake accounts tied to Russian operatives. Twitter stated that they have identified 2,754 accounts and 36,000 bots linked to Russian agencies.

“I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly underestimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation,” said Warner. “Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million accounts – are fake or automated.”

Warner did note the U.S. government is also responsible with protecting Americans in the digital age. He brought up the Honest Ads Act that he co-wrote with Senator Klobluchar (D-Minn.) and Senator McCain (R-Ariz.). The proposed national security bill is intended to protect future elections from foreign influence. During his time, Warner asked each general counsel, Facebook’s Colin Stretch, Google’s Kent Walker, and Twitter’s Sean Edgett if they would support the bill.  All three company representatives affirmed they would.

Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) expressed similar concern on Russia’s use of disseminating misinformation, but emphasized that the issue is broader than the 2016 election.

“What we cannot do is calculate the impact that foreign meddling and social media had on this election,” Burr said. “Nor can we assume that it must be the explanation for an election outcome that many didn’t expect.”

Burr used the number of advertisements and amount of money spent in different states to support his stance. Russian agencies put five times more money in advertising In California—a state Burr said has not voted for a Republican candidate since 1988—than in Pennsylvania, a crucial state to win last election.

“This isn’t about re-litigating the 2016 presidential election,” said Burr. “This isn’t about who won or lost…this is about a foreign hostile power that tried to divide our society along issues like race, immigration, and Second Amendment rights.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) along with several other Republican Committee members emphasized that the spreading of divisive disinformation is beyond the 2016 American election.

“These operations, they’re not limited to 2016 and not limited to the presidential race, and they continue to this day. They are much more widespread than one election,” Rubio said.

Burr showed an example of the fake accounts and posts that created negative outcome. One account was called the “Heart of Texas,” and the “United Muslims of America” account. Each account had over 250,000 followers. “Heart of Texas” created a public event and promoted followers to attend a “Stop Islamization” demonstration at the Islamic center in Houston Texas. the other fake account “United Muslims of America” promoted a demonstration to “Save Islamic Knowledge” at the same time and place. Despite both being created by the same Russian operatives, demonstrators on both side showed up at the Islamic center ready to protest each other.

“Establishing these two competing groups, paying for the ads, and causing this disruptive event in Houston cost Russia about two hundred dollars,” said Burr.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) highlighted the small investment Russia paid for such an effective impact. Stretch in response to Blunt’s questioning, stated Russia invested $46,000 in political ads before the presidential election compared to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trumps’ campaign combined total of $81 million.

“So the fact that were talking about [Russian paid ads] today it certainly seems like that they got their money’s worth,” said Blunt.

During Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) questioning, he asked each company the specific changes they planned to make going forward. Some changes included improved algorithms to detect fake news and informative icons identifying who paid for advertisements. Stretch included that Facebook was increasing their staff that work on safety and security from 10,000 to 20,000 by the end of 2018.

All three social media platforms agreed during the hearing to continue working with the intelligence committee and to be more transparent in sources of their advertisements.

“Your companies are just beginning to come to grips with the scale and the depth of the problem,” said Chairman Burr. “Your actions need to catch up to your responsibilities.”

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