Congress grills Facebook, Twitter, Google over Russian influence

Things get heated as tech executives face the second day of congressional hearings to answer questions about fake news and Russia's misinformation campaign.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
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6 min read
Facebook, Google And Twitter Executives Testify To Senate Select Intel Committee On Preventing Foreign Interference In Elections

Left to right: Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, 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 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 left unimpressed.  

"You showed a lack of resources, commitment and a lack of genuine effort," said Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. The Senate Intelligence Committee has been studying this issue since January and, he said, the committee's early concerns "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 let Russian operatives effectively use their platforms to spread fake news and outrage.

Watch this: Senators show frustration with Facebook, Google and Twitter

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 in the overall inquiry 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 went before the House Intelligence Committee in 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.

It was a hot ticket in DC: The massive room for the Senate hearing filled up quickly after lines formed around the corner to get in. 

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's garnered more than 414 million impressions on Facebook and Twitter, the companies said.

On Facebook's earnings call Wednesday in which the company blew past Wall Street estimates for profits, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that even though beefing up security would affect the company's bottom line, the social networking site will do what it takes to protect its more than 2 billion users. 

"Our business is doing well," Zuckerberg said in a statement. "But none of that matters if our services are used in ways that don't bring people closer together. We're serious about preventing abuse on our platforms. We're investing so much in security that it will impact our profitability. Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits."

Next stop: Regulation?

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."

While the tech executives walked in confident this morning, the barrage of queries from the senators started to wear them down. Stretch endured the brunt of the scrutiny, and his answers stumbled as the questions became more pointed. 

They walked into the second House Committee hearing looking less confident than before. 

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 requires 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. Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, said the company supports the goals of the legislation and that 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.

In the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, asked the companies if they'd lobby against the Honest Ads Act.

Though reluctant to fully endorse the bill that's already been proposed, none of the tech executives seemed willing to say they'd fight the new regulations. Stretch said Facebook is willing to work with legislators on a new law, and Edgett said Twitter is supportive of the direction the legislation is taking but that it plans to work with lawmakers to fine tune it. 

In the House Intelligence Committee hearing Rep. Terri Sewell, a Democrat from Alabama, applauded the companies for their "self-policing" activity of finding "malicious and deceptive activity" on their platforms.

But she said there still needs to be legislation that bans political ads funded by a foreign governments looking to influence elections and requires disclosures of who pays for ads on these sites. She asked the executives if they'd be willing to post disclosures with their advertisements. They each agreed they support the "general direction" of the Honest Ad legislation.

Fearing unwanted regulation, Facebook and Twitter pre-emptively 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.

Still, even legislators pondered the effectiveness of new laws in this scenario. The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff of California, said in an interview following the hearing that he supports the Senate's Honest Ad legislation and believes disclosures are needed. But he admitted it won't fix the problem entirely. 

"Congress is not going to regulate an algorithm, so there are limits to what we can do," he said. 

High stakes

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."

Cart after cart of boards with printed out Facebook posts came into the room on Wednesday, as Facebook's Stretch had to come face-to-face with the Russian propaganda that had poured throughout the social network during the presidential election. 

Executives from Facebook and Twitter admitted they began seeing Russian interference on their platforms as early as 2015. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, expressed his frustration with the companies' efforts thus far.  

"In the last election, you failed," Wyden said. "You need to stop paying lip service to shutting down bad actors running these accounts ... Congress has given you the legal protection to actually act and deal with this."

He asked the companies if they were satisfied with their response to tackling the problem of foreign interference. All three answered no, and they acknowledged they must do better.  

Tech fix?

In an attempt to assuage the senators, the companies listed the ways they were improving the situation. 

Google's Walker said the company is creating an archive of ads to make it possible to see who is sponsoring ads, along with enhanced verification measures for advertisements. Google is also working to combat "fake news" with new algorithms to look for hoax posts, fake ads and news. It's also reconsidering its ad policies.

For its part, Twitter has formed an information quality team to help stop bad actors from automatically tweeting. And it's working with law enforcement to counter misinformation.

Facebook's Stretch reiterated that the company has added an additional 10,000 staffers to work on safety and security with a goal of having 20,000 people working on that by the end of 2018. And he said the company will be more transparent about who's paying for and posting political ads.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, concluded the hearing by underscoring the task these companies face. He noted they were the front line of defense to "minimize the damage" from Russian interference.  

He told them to ask for antitrust waivers if they need to in order to collaborate in order to fix the problems. And he warned that if they are unsuccessful in their efforts, the consequences are grave.

"Don't let nation states disrupt our future," he said. 

First published Nov. 1, 8:30 a.m. PT. 
Update, 10:53 a.m., 1:56 p.m. , 3:57 p.m and 3:15 p.m.: Adds more comments from senators, representatives and company executives made during the Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings. Adds comments from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

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