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Senators Press Facebook on What It Did to Counter Russian Influence on 2016 Election

WASHINGTON — A representative for Facebook was in the hot seat on Tuesday over questions of whether the company took enough steps to limit Russian influence on political content during the 2016 election.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) angrily questioned Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch on why the company missed signals that Russia-linked firms were purchasing political ads, given reports that some of the payments came in the form of rubles.

“American political ads and Russian money. Rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?” Franken asked.

But Stretch said that “in hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed.”

Franken, though, was indignant.

“You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear these platforms do…You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go, hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?” he said.

“Senator, it is a signal we should have been alert to,” Stretch responded, after insisting that there was a security team in place to monitor such content.

The company, along with representatives of Twitter and Google, faced Senate Judiciary Committee members in the first of public hearings on the use of their platforms by Russian sources to try to influence the 2016 election. On Wednesday, the companies are sending representatives to Senate and House intelligence committee hearings on similar topics, after having met with lawmakers in private earlier this fall.

Facebook’s Stretch drew the brunt of the questions, much more than reps from Twitter and Google, as he outlined a series of steps the company was taking and defended its response in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

On Monday, Facebook announced that Russia-linked political content reached an estimated 126 million users during the 2016 campaign season and into 2017.

Facebook has previously said that Russia-linked firms purchased about 3,000 ads on its platform during that time period, in spots that primarily focused on divisive political issues as opposed to individual candidates. The ads drove people to follow certain pages, which in turn featured unpaid content.

“Much of the content we have seen is imitative of social causes, many meaningful ones,” Stretch said. “It is what makes this content so vile, so cynical.”

 

Stretch said that there were limits to the information that the company can obtain about those who have advertised on their platform. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked whether Facebook knew who assisted the Internet Research Agency, a firm linked to Russia, in knowing where to target ads on the platform.

“We are not able to see behind the accounts,” Stretch said. “All we essentially get is the targeting information, which we provide to the committee.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) showed examples of some of the Russia-linked ads during the campaign, one of which ran in Texas and slammed Hillary Clinton as insufficiently supportive of veterans. Another was for a fake event.

Stretch said that the ad “reflects the sophistication of what we are dealing with.”

In the immediate aftermath of the election, they detected that the activity to influence American political opinion continued, this time a “concerted effort to sow discord” over President Donald Trump’s victory. It continued until Facebook disabled accounts.

Stretch did say that they have not found evidence of Russian interference in a gubernatorial race in Virginia and a Senate race in Alabama.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said that while he thinks Facebook does “enormous good,” its power “sometimes scares me.” Given its size and reach, he questioned just how much the company could know of the source of ads on its platform.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took an alternate view: a concern that Internet firms’ policing of content will be so overzealous as to curb legitimate political speech. “The prospect of Silicon Valley companies actively censoring speech for the news content is troubling,” he said, before sharing concerns that conservative content was being stifled on the platforms.

Stretch insisted that Facebook is “open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology,” and that they are “acutely aware of unconscious biases.”

Twitter, meanwhile, said that it has detected 2,752 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency. Earlier this month, it told lawmakers and staffers that it identified just 201 accounts connected to Russian-influence activity, but it continued to investigate.

Overall, Twitter said that the tweets linked to Russian automated accounts were just a small fraction of overall election-related activity. It reviewed the time period of Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016, and found that the tweets from Russia-linked automated accounts were less that 3/4 of a percent of the overall election-related tweets at the time. Its review found 189 million election-related tweets during that period.

Its representative, acting general counsel Sean Edgett, said that of its 330 million accounts, less than 5% are false, spam, or automated accounts.

He was queried on one Twitter ad — featuring Aziz Ansari — that promised users that they could vote online. Edgett said that it was eventually taken down. The traffic for tweets refuting the ad was eight times greater than the ad itself, Edgett said.

Google, in a blog post on Monday, said that it found 18 YouTube channels “likely” associated with Russian efforts related to the 2016 election. The channels included 1,108 videos uploaded representing 43 hours of content and totaling 309,000 U.S. views from June 2015 to November 2016. But the videos had low view counts — only around 3% had more than 5,000 views, Google said.

Google also said that it found “no evidence” that state-linked or state-funded actors used improper methods to try to boost their rankings in search results.

Richard Salgado, its director of law enforcement and information security, told lawmakers that Google would begin to publish a transparency report on political ads next year that will enable users to identify their source.

What is unclear is whether the hearings will boost momentum for new legislation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is sponsoring a bill with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) to require that online companies provide greater disclosure of the sources of political ads.

Klobuchar asked the representatives from the three major internet firms if they supported the legislation, but none of them said that they would explicitly endorse it.

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