WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, believes that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are “one significant event away from people losing faith” in their platforms.
In an interview with Variety, Warner was critical of the response from the companies as the Intelligence Committee has investigated Russia’s efforts to infiltrate the 2016 presidential election. He also has doubts that the steps that the companies have taken so far to try to prevent future foreign interference via the spread of false information will be enough.
He said that it was “naive at best and disingenuous at worst, that the companies aren’t willing to kind of step up and do more to help.”
“The government is playing catch up in trying to [grasp] the size of the problem,” he said. “The social media companies, I would say charitably, were slow to the draw, and less charitably, just want it all to go away because it affects their business model.”
Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter appeared before the Intelligence Committee on Nov. 1 to explain what they had discovered about Russian interference on their platforms. In the months since, they have announced a number of steps to try to curb the foreign purchase of political ads and to stop the spread of misinformation.
In recent days, though, there have been reports that Russian-linked Twitter accounts and bots have spread messages to sow discord around the issue of gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings.
Warner said that he has yet to be briefed on the use of social media to spread misinformation about the high school tragedy. He suggested that one thing that helps drive the misinformation campaigns is that they are “so cheap.”
“These are automated machines that can gin out thousands and in certain cases millions of messages in a very short period of time and [have] the ability to drive almost any story to the top of a news feed.”
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced the indictment of 13 Russians and three entities for waging a campaign of “information warfare” against the United States in an effort to boost the prospects for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances. The tactics they used ranged from purchasing political ads on Facebook and other sites, to using fake identities to organize what were made to look like grassroots events.
The Justice Department alleges that the Russian interests, working through the Internet Research Agency, bought space on computer servers in the U.S. and set up a “virtual private network.” They then used that capacity to set up Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to make it look like they were American in origin. They also staged rallies. In one instance, the Russians paid a person who built a cage on a flatbed truck and another person who wore a costume as Clinton in a prison uniform.
Twitter, Facebook, and Google have announced a series of steps to try to limit the spread of misinformation. Facebook, for instance, recently announced that it was instituting a set of verification procedures to prevent the sale of political advertisements to foreign actors. Twitter said that it would contact almost 700,000 users that they may have been exposed to Russian-linked accounts.
Warner is skeptical. He credits Facebook for discovering the activities that came out of the Internet Research Agency, but “for the most part their responses have always been a day late and a dollar short.” He said that Facebook’s newly announced ad verification procedures, including the use of snail mail postcards, will “slow the ability of a foreign entity to use paid advertising on a candidate-specific basis.” The company indicated that it was part of a wider effort to address foreign influence on campaigns.
But Warner said he has concerns that such procedures may not flag issue-oriented paid ads or stop the creation of fake pages to entice real people to attend events centered around politically contentious issues.
He said that he was not surprised by what the Mueller indictment said about the Russian’s use of social media. He said that the indictment “reinforced how pervasive this effort was, how extensive this effort was.”
In the aftermath of the indictment, a vice president for ads at Facebook, posted on Twitter that “most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election. I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”
He also wrote that “the majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.” Trump picked his post up and tweeted it over the weekend, but Facebook later said that “nothing we found contradicts the Special Counsel’s indictments. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong.”
Warner said that Goldman “is either naive or extraordinarily crass. Maybe just the crassness [is] in terms of the fact that he’s an ad salesman, and he didn’t want to do anything that might hurt his ad business.”
He said that the intelligence committee is working on tapping a number of independent researchers to do an analysis of social media posts from Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and others.
He also would like to see the CEOs of the companies appear before the intelligence committee. In November, the companies sent legal and lobbying representatives to testify, not the chieftains of the companies.
“The American public needs to have these individuals come forward and explain themselves and not in some you know soft gauzy corporate sponsored event,” Warner said. “They need to come and answer some questions.”