Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said there's a lot more work to be done when it comes to the Russia problem.
Top executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter traveled to Capitol Hill this week to testify before Schiff's committee, along with two other Senate subcommittees, to discuss the use of their platforms by Russian foreign agents to interfere with last year's US election. Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisles spent hourson what steps they're taking to stop Russia from manipulating their platforms.
The hearings were 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.
Part of the purpose of these committee hearings was to gauge whether regulations are needed to help prevent this kind of information manipulation. Such legislation has already been proposed in the Senate. The Honest Ads Act, sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia; Amy Klobuchar a Democrat from Minnesota; and John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, would require social networks to meet the same standards that political ads on TV and radio must meet.
CNET caught up with Schiff after the hearing to hear his thoughts on how the Silicon Valley execs performed and where the inquiry into Russian meddling may go from here. Below is an edited excerpt from the conversation.
Are you satisfied with the performance of the Facebook, Google and Twitter lawyers at the House Intelligence Committee hearing?
Schiff: We should view this hearing as just the beginning of oversight and discussions. There is only so much you can cover in a couple of hours. A lot of questions that were asked [during the hearing] are going to need a lot of follow up. Both in terms of understanding the full extent of the use of the Russian use of the platforms, but also understanding more broadly how these platforms might accentuate some of the divisions in our society that made us so vulnerable to the Russians.
What kind of follow-up would you like to see?
Schiff: We'll be releasing all the Facebook ads and targeting information and that will help us by allowing outside experts to analyze that and share information with us that may not be readily apparent to us. I've also asked the companies to work together on the joint report to the Congress. They are in a far better position to understand how the Russians used their platforms and built interest in one platform to target people using another platform.
Other committees will be interested in some of the broader issues in terms of how these algorithms work and what the societal impacts are.
Several lawmakers during the hearings today were dismayed that it took the companies so long to admit that the Russian interference was significant. How seriously do you think they take this problem?
Schiff: They were slow to realize the use of their platforms during the campaign by Russia. They've acknowledged as much. One of the things we tried to get a sense of in the hearing is once they were made aware of it, how exhaustive has their internal forensic work been and how much work still needs to be done? They've admitted that they were slow to see it and the question now is where do we go from here?
What about legislation? Do you think the Honest Ads legislation introduced in the Senate is necessary?
Schiff: I do. It's almost inevitable that we will have a statutory requirement or regulatory requirement that political ads on social media have the same transparent disclosure that ads do on TV, in print media and on radio. Those disclose who is paying the freight. That will almost certainly happen. Beyond that we have a lot more oversight to do before we can consider any other further regulation.
What do you think about the elections coming up in 2018 and beyond? Congressman Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, noted that right before the House Intelligence Committee hearing began, a "fake news" story was the top trending item on Twitter under the hashtag #NewYorkAttack. Will the platforms be ready for 2018?
Schiff: On the one hand, we will be better prepared to ferret out some of this content. On the other hand, the Russians will be more sophisticated in hiding the origins of their social media propaganda. So we will continue to try to identify the bad actors out there. In terms of broader issues around the propagation of false and divisive news and misinformation like what we saw on Twitter during the hearing regarding the New York terror attack -- that is a big problem. And we are going to keep the focus on it.
The Trump campaign during the election was retweeting and resharing a lot of this Russian sponsored information. Do you think they just weren't savvy enough to recognize what was real and what wasn't?
Schiff: In some cases, it may be that they were duped. In some cases, it may have been willful blindness. In other cases, it may have been a desire to push whatever false or negative information that was out there without really caring whether it was true or not. The president continues to do that today, so why should it have been different during the campaign?
Are you looking into whether there was a connection between what the Russians were doing and whether they were coordinating with the Trump campaign?
Schiff: I look at the social media campaign the Russians did as a kind of independent expenditure and in cases where you have a group doing an independent expenditure, even a domestic actor, there are often allegations that a so-called "independent" group is in fact working in coordination with the campaign, we have to do an investigation. We have to find out if this particular campaign by the Russians was truly independent or whether there was some level of coordination. It's too early to reach a conclusion about that.
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