Facebook, Twitter and Google to reveal full extent of Russian meddling to Congress

31 Oct 2017

Capitol Hill Building in Washington DC. Image: Golden Brown/Shutterstock

As tech giants reveal extent of Russian meddling, painful truths about these same companies will surface and lead to a more informed debate.

Inflammatory messaging distributed by Russian agents intended to influence the US elections last year apparently reached as many as 126m Facebook users.

Not only that, but Russian agents disseminated such content in the form of 131,000 messages on Twitter and more than 1,000 videos on Google’s YouTube video platform.

This is according to early testimony that the tech giants will reveal to US lawmakers during Capitol Hill hearings this week.

Twitter is expected to tell congressional investigators that it found more than 2,700 accounts tied to a Russian organisation called the Internet Research Agency.

While at first these numbers appear staggering, they are in fact efforts by the tech companies to downplay the impact that alleged Russian meddling had in influencing the US election outcome last year, which saw Donald Trump emerge as the 45th US president.

Facebook, for example, will make the claim that the Russian disinformation campaign amounted to only a small proportion of the billions of posts of content seen by users and that, on average, the daily Facebook user sees 200 stories in their news feed each day.

If anything, the data will only serve to entrench fears around how porous the US has become when it comes to efforts by other countries to sow discord by gaming the platforms of the country’s tech giants.

In prepared remarks, Facebook will tell Congress how the Internet Research Agency posted roughly 80,000 pieces of divisive content between January 2015 and August 2017, reaching tens of millions of users.

The social network will also tell Congress how it deleted more than 170 accounts from its Instagram subsidiary that had posted around 120,000 pieces of Russian-linked content.

The same Internet Research Agency also paid for $100,000 worth of advertising on Facebook.

Facebook security teams discovered threats targeting employees of American political parties from a group called APT28, an agency with links to Russian military intelligence operations.

Separate to the activities of APT28 and the Internet Research Agency, Twitter will tell Congress that it identified more than 36,000 automated accounts that posted more than 1.4m election-related tweets.

Twitter will say that the 1.4m tweets represented less than three-quarters of 1pc of election-related tweets between September 2016 and November 2016.

The tech giants are media companies

While the tech giants are ultimately trying to downplay the impact of Russian-linked content on the outcome of elections, it nevertheless points to the growing argument that these companies are in fact media companies in their own right and therefore have responsibility over what is published on their platforms.

Simply stating that they don’t employ journalists is a flimsy argument as these platforms’ respective feeds have become the front pages of our times.

Governance around what advertising they accept may be just as applicable when it comes to giving a voice to inflammatory posts.

Facebook, Twitter, Google et al will have to bite the bullet and accept that if they are generating revenues from advertising lured by eyeballs to content on their systems, they are in fact media companies.

Capitol Hill Building in Washington DC. Image: Golden Brown/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years