Congress will put Facebook, Twitter and Google under a public microscope Tuesday about Russia’s use of their networks to meddle in the 2016 election, a day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation disclosed its first indictments and guilty plea.
Senators want to know how the companies failed to keep Russians from exploiting their networks — buying 3,000 Facebook ads mostly with rubles — and using fake accounts to spread chaos and disinformation to millions of Americans. The three companies’ general counsels will appear before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday and the House and Senate Intelligence panels Wednesday.
“If someone is paying you in rubles to place a political ad, or an ad that is intended to sow the seeds of discontent and discord, that ought to be a red flag,” Senate Intelligence panel member Susan Collins of Maine said in an interview Monday. “How much more of a tipoff do you need?”
More than a rehash of 2016, the hearings will set the stage for congressional action to try to prevent foreign interference in U.S. campaigns and voting in next year’s congressional and state elections. The companies, in turn, want to use the hearings to portray themselves as eager to find a solution ahead of any bipartisan efforts to impose new regulations on their networks.
“The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible and outrageous and opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society,” Colin Stretch, Facebook Inc. general counsel, said in prepared remarks. “We’re determined to prevent it from happening again.”
The hearings begin a day after Monday’s disclosure of indictments of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and deputy Rick Gates on financial charges, as well as a plea deal with former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who is cooperating with the investigation.
Lawmakers are focused on whether there was any overlap between the Trump campaign and the massive Russian effort to flood Americans’ social media feeds with fake news and fake ads.
Facebook plans to tell lawmakers that 80,000 posts by 470 fake Russian accounts reached an estimated 126 million people, and that it closed 5.8 million fake accounts from all sources in October 2016 alone. Fake Russian accounts on Facebook’s Instagram posted another 120,000 pieces of content, the company will tell lawmakers.
At the same hearing, Twitter Inc. will say it has suspended 2,752 Russian-linked accounts, far more than it previously disclosed, according to testimony obtained by Bloomberg. Alphabet Inc.’s Google plans to say the impact on its sites was much smaller, with $4,700 worth of Russian-linked ads, compared to the $100,000 Facebook disclosed.
The tech companies are likely hoping the hearings don’t stray too far from the use of ads by Russian-linked actors. They’ve already tried to address that problem by finding and banning the offending accounts. Facebook has said it will vet political ads with human employees instead of allowing them to be posted through its automated service.
The companies will be wary of what happened to Twitter when it first presented information on Russian interference to a closed-door briefing in late September with the Senate Intelligence committee staff. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, gave the company a verbal lashing afterward for not taking the issue seriously enough.
The companies have since worked to present a proactive image. Twitter said last week it would ban Russian state media accounts from buying ads and create a “transparency center” to show how much political campaigns spent on advertising, the identity of the organization funding the campaign, and what demographics the ad targeted.
Facebook promised to display more information about political ads on its site.
Google has turned over evidence to federal investigators that Russia-linked organizations bought ads on YouTube, AdWords and other services. The company participated in private briefings to explain the mechanics, and removed Russia Today from a special premium YouTube package where it split ad sales with the search giant, saying the move was part of a “standard algorithmic update.”
‘Ministry of Truth’
More challenging is the broader issue of how social networks can be exploited to spread false information and whip up the public on divisive issues. Facebook head of security Alex Stamos has said using algorithms to try to cut fake news or political comments would result in the company acting as the “Ministry of Truth” — something it doesn’t want to be. But its current effort to stop misinformation, by letting neutral third parties fact-check posts flagged by users, is falling short, according to people familiar with the process.
Facebook has also come under fire from liberals for sending employees to work closely with the Trump campaign on its Facebook ad strategy, something the company has said it does with any large customer.
Independent researchers have found that much of the manipulation on Twitter comes from fake and automated accounts that don’t involve advertising. Researchers have found that hundreds of thousands of bots posted political messages during the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Twitter alone. Cybersecurity firm FireEye has said it uncovered thousands of fake accounts linked to Russia that posted anti-Clinton messages.
However, teaching Twitter’s algorithms to find malicious tweeters is challenging. Russian meddlers are complementing their networks of bots with human workers who are paid to tweet coordinated messages at the same time. It can be difficult for Twitter’s algorithms to detect the difference, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Still on YouTube
Google took longer than other social media to disclose that it had found Russian-linked accounts on its site and used Twitter data to do so, a person familiar with the matter said at the time. One group of videographers, which Twitter and Facebook shut down in August after finding a link to Russia, was still live on YouTube two months later. It was shut down after the Daily Beast pointed it out on Oct. 8.
Lawmakers may also scrutinize Google’s display advertising business, which provides revenue for millions of websites, some of which have been flagged for spreading misinformation.
Facebook’s Stretch plans in his remarks to welcome a discussion of new legislation without endorsing a proposal from Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Warner and Republican John McCain requiring online political advertising to comply with the same disclosure requirements as broadcast ads. Facebook has lobbied for years against such requirements.
Collins of Maine said she’s withholding a decision on whether to support legislation until after the hearing. She noted it’s already against the law for foreign actors to try to influence U.S. elections.
“I want to make sure that if we do decide that legislation is needed in this area, that we do something that’s effective,” Collins said.
— With assistance by Selina Wang