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Senators: Tech firms didn't take election meddling 'seriously'

An update from the Senate Intelligence Committee highlights the ongoing threat of election interference.

Sens. Richard Burr (left) and Mark Warner deliver an update on an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Sens. Richard Burr (left) and Mark Warner deliver an update on an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When it came to interference with the 2016 election, tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google "did not take this threat seriously enough," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner told reporters at a press conference at the US Capitol on Wednesday.

Warner and Republican Sen. Richard Burr addressed reporters to give an update on the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the election. The senators said they didn't have any final conclusions to present from their investigation. They hope to interview representatives from tech companies on Nov. 1.

On Monday, Facebook disclosed that Russian-linked buyers had placed ads on the social media platform that were then seen by 10 million people. Last week, Twitter said it had found more than 200 accounts on its service connected to the buyers of the Facebook ads. Reports Wednesday morning said it appeared the ads were targeted at Wisconsin and Michigan.

Facebook and Google didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the senators' remarks. Google said Friday that it's cooperating with the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation.

In a blog post Monday, Facebook Vice President of Policy and Communications Elliot Schrage said the company is adding "additional human review and approval" to some kinds of targeted ads going forward.

A Twitter representative said the company is cooperating with the Intelligence Committee's inquiry: "Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process and will continue to both work with the investigations and to share details of our findings with the public as we are able." Twitter said in a blog post Thursday that it had removed the accounts associated with the Facebook ad buyers and that none of the accounts it found were registered as advertisers on Twitter. The company will participate in the Nov. 1 hearing.

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Warner said he wants to make sure "foreign-paid-for advertising doesn't influence our elections" in the future and that campaigns can see the advertising aimed against them.

The senators emphasized that the investigation is looking at several aspects of potential interference in the election. When it comes to hackers stealing emails and documents from political operatives, Burr said there's no doubt it happened but that there's no evidence vote tallies were affected by hackers. Other questions, such as whether there was collusion between either campaign and a foreign government, remain unanswered, Burr said.

The social media ads and foreign-run accounts were created to "sow chaos and drive division in the United States," Burr said. However, the committee doesn't plan to release the ads its members have seen. Warner said they should be released in some form. 

"I think it's important that the public sees these ads," Warner said.

When considering the impact of the ads, Burr said they were a good bargain for the Russia-linked buyers.

"I fear sometimes, if you add up all they spent, it was a decent rate of return for them," Burr said.

First published Oct. 4, 9:56 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:19 a.m.: Adds comment from Twitter and background information throughout.

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