Congress grills Facebook, Twitter, Google over Russian influence

Facebook, Google And Twitter Executives Testify To Senate Select Intel Committee On Preventing Foreign Interference In Elections

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, left, Twitter General Counsel Sean Edgett and Google General Counsel Kent Walker testify during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. 

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Facebook, Google and Twitter came to Capitol Hill to argue that they’re ready to fight back against the scourge of fake news and the Russian misinformation campaign that influenced the 2016 US presidential election.

The senators were not impressed.  

“You showed a lack of resources, commitment and a lack of genuine resources,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. The Senate Intelligence Committee has been studying this issue since January, and he noted that the senate committee’s claims “were frankly blown off by your leadership.”

“That’s not enough,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, shot back when Twitter General Counsel Sean Edgett said the company is constantly improving its process of identifying propaganda on its platform.

Edgett, alongside Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch and Google General Counsel Kent Walker, faced intense questions on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — the second day of hearings looking into how such powerful companies were able to allow Russian operatives to effectively use their platforms to spread fake news and outrage.

The hearings, in which several senators expressed frustration with the lack of answers, are the latest twist in the high-profile investigation into Russia’s influence over the US election, with Congress looking to hold Silicon Valley accountable for its role. At issue is how much the Russian government may have attempted to influence the electorate and whether President Donald Trump or anyone working for him was knowingly involved. Trump has repeatedly denied involvement.   

The companies faced the Senate Intelligence Committee early Wednesday and will go before the House Intelligence Committee during the afternoon. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee also interrogated companies, which disclosed that the reach of the Russian campaign was worse than earlier thought.

Facebook said Tuesday that roughly 126 million people could have seen bogus posts, while Twitter confirmed that there were more than 2,700 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian-backed troll farm. Altogether, those trolls have spread propaganda and fake news that have garnered more than 414 million impressions on Facebook and Twitter, the companies said.

Part of the purpose of these committee hearings is to gauge whether regulations are needed to help prevent this kind of information manipulation. Feinstein offered such a warning.

“You will have to be the ones to do something about it,” she said. “Or we will.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked the executives if they’d support the Honest Ads Act legislation she and Warner have introduced that require social networks to meet the same standards that political ads on TV and radio must meet.

Facebook’s Stretch said the company is “not waiting for legislation” and is already taking action. Google’s Salgado said the company supports the goals of the legislation and the company is willing to work through nuances with lawmakers to get the kinks out of the legislation.

But when pressed by Klobuchar, Twitter’s Edgett admitted that without regulation there would be no enforcer to make sure they are complying with their policies and promises.

Fearing unwanted regulation, Facebook and Twitter preemptively adopted new policies days before the hearings. Facebook promised more transparency for its political ads. Twitter announced it’s blocking ads from Russia-sponsored news sites Russia Today and Sputnik.

The companies kicked off the hearing on Wednesday detailing how they have already begun to take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again, running through a laundry list of technologies in the their arsenals like artificial intelligence. They also said they welcomed the government’s help.

But lawmakers have said the companies need to do more.

“We need to recognize that current law was not built to address these threats,” Warner said in his prepared statement. “We can all be assured that other adversaries, including foreign intelligence operatives and potentially terrorist organizations, are reading their playbook and already taking action.”

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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