Congress calls tech giants to testify about Russia-linked posts


Social media representatives are appearing before U.S. Congress over allegations that Russia spread misleading, divisive and politically subversive messages on their platforms, which could have influenced the 2016 presidential election.

The hearings by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Russia Investigative Task Force started on October 31 and continue on November 1. They will feature Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett and Google general counsel Kent Walker.

Companies disclose new info on deeper Russian involvement

  • Facebook revealed to senators that Russia published about 80,000 posts in two years to influence U.S. politics and that as many as 126 million Americans may have seen them. This information was included in advanced written testimony, first reported Oct. 30 by Reuters. That’s much more than the 10 million users that Facebook estimated earlier this month.
  • Twitter found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian operatives, which are now suspended, according to Reuters. Twitter believes the Internet Research Agency — a Russian state-sponsored propaganda company known as the ‘Trolls from Olgino‘ —  was behind these accounts, according to a testimony obtained by The Financial Times. These accounts posted about 131,000 tweets in the two months leading up to the election, according to the BBC. Twitter initially said in September that it found just 201 such accounts. 
  • Google said in a statement on October 30 that that two accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency spent $4,700 in Russia-linked ads on Google during the campaign. Google’s investigation also reveals that Russian trolls uploaded more than 1,000 political videos on YouTube on 18 different channels, garnering 309,000 U.S. views from June 2015 to November 2016.

Their defense

Stretch is expected to say that the Russian posts on Facebook represent .004 percent of content in the platform’s news feed, according to his written testimony, obtained by CNN. He is also expected to say that Facebook has deleted 170 Instagram accounts which made about 120,000 posts, according to the written testimony obtained by The Financial Times.

Twitter released a statement on October 24 explaining its new Advertising Transparency Center, which will show such things as all ads running on Twitter, including promoted-only ads and the time those ads have been running. It will also make clear when users are seeing political ads.

Google said it’s creating a  publicly accessible database of election ads from its platform, in a statement issued on October 30. The statement also said it will show the names of advertisers running election-related campaigns on Google search and YouTube.

Timeline of Facebook’s response

  • November 9 — The day after the election, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said, “the idea that fake news on Facebook … influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”
  • November 17 — The International Fact Checking Network sent Zuckerberg an open letter saying “Facebook should strengthen users’ ability to identify fake posts and false news by themselves, as the scale of the problem is too vast for a purely top-down approach.”
  • December 15Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be giving users the ability to flag questionable stories. This feature would then alert fact-checking organizations, and if two or more rated the flagged story as fake, the article would appear on Facebook with a ‘Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers’ message. This feature began in the U.S. market and is now being rolled out in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
  • September 6Facebook announces more than 3,000 Russian-generated ads ran in the U.S. between 2015 and 2017.
  • September 21 — Facebook said it is sharing those ads with congressional investigators.
  • September 27 — Zuckberg says in one of his Facebook posts that he regrets calling the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election “crazy” and says it was “dismissive.”
  • October 27 — Facebook announces that starting from next month in Canada, people will be able to specifically look for ads running on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. This service will be rolled out in November in the U.S. before its midterm elections, as well as most other countries.

How did we get here?

Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter were asked on September 27 to testify before Congress. “We will hold an open hearing with representatives from tech companies in order to better understand how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election,” explained Representatives Mike Conaway and Adam Schiff, the top Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the committee.

On October 4, Facebook and Twitter confirmed they would cooperate. Google later followed suit.

 

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