Insights into Facebook, Twitter and Google’s Congress appearance revealed

1 Nov 2017

Capitol Hill. Image: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

Tech giants seem contrite but don’t commit to action over Russian meddling.

In prepared statements, Facebook, Google and Twitter gave the US Congress the lowdown on the scale of alleged Russian meddling in last year’s elections.

While no promises were made, the only thing that was certain about the whole thing was how aghast senators were about the porous nature of the tech giants’ systems in terms of how they could be gamed by bad actors.

The companies appeared contrite, even a little shocked at the scale of the problem themselves. Two more hearings are scheduled for today (1 November).

In its statement, Facebook revealed that more than 126m users potentially saw ads bought by the Internet Research Agency, a firm with links to the Kremlin. Of these, 29m users definitely saw the ads because they liked one of the Russian-linked pages while the rest saw posts that spread organically. Facebook also deleted 170 Instagram accounts that had posted 120,000 pieces of content.

“The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible and outrageous and opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society,” Facebook counsel Colin Stretch said in the social network’s prepared testimony.

“That foreign actors, hiding behind fake accounts, abused our platform and other internet services to try to sow division and discord – and to try to undermine our election process – is an assault on democracy, and it violates all of our values.”

Google discovered $4,700 worth of search and display ads with dubious Russian ties. The search giant also reported that 18 YouTube channels associated with the Kremlin’s disinformation efforts, as well as Gmail addresses, were used. More than 1,000 videos on YouTube were used to distribute misleading information.

Twitter found more than 2,700 accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency. It is understood that Russian agents disseminated information in the form of 131,000 messages on Twitter in the period leading up to the elections.

Senators want action

While the link between fake news and foreign interference was initially brushed off earlier this year by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a “crazy idea”, senators did not agree and pushed for tougher remedies such as regulations for political ads on the web being as strict as those on TV.

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, said: “Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsive, legislative way to address it?”

Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked Stretch how the company could possibly keep track of all 5m advertisers on its platform. “You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you, today?” Kennedy asked. “Right now? Not your commitment, I’m asking about your ability.”

Mazie Hirono, a Democrat senator from Hawaii, asked: “In an election where a total of about 115,000 votes would have changed the outcome, can you say that the false and misleading propaganda people saw on your Facebook didn’t have an impact on the election?”

The grilling of the tech giants will continue over the next two days and the biggest fear for them is that increasingly angry senators will push for even more regulations.

Later today, Google, Facebook and Twitter will testify before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election through each of their platforms. Also on the agenda is the topic of combating extremist content.

The House Intelligence Committee will also ask the tech companies about the events that preceded the election of US president Donald Trump.

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