- On Wednesday, top lawyers for Facebook, Twitter, and Google appeared before the Senate and House intelligence committees to answer questions about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election. None of the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, or Google were in attendance – a fact that drew criticism from multiple senators.
Top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the House and Senate intelligence committees on Wednesday, one day after being grilled by another congressional committee about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election.
The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google were not at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday, a fact that drew criticism from multiple senators during the hearing. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg later spoke publicly during the company’s quarterly earnings call.
The first Wednesday hearing, where general counsels for Facebook, Twitter, and Google appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, kicked off at 9:30 a.m. ET and concluded at 12:30 p.m. ET. In attendance were Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel; Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel; and Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel who reports to the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai.
The second hearing of the day, before the House Intelligence Committee, kicked off at 2 p.m. ET. You can watch video of the full hearing below:
Senate Intelligence Committee hearing
Senator Dianne Feinstein had some harsh words for the general counsels of Facebook, Twitter, and Google on Wednesday morning.
“I must say, I don’t think you get it. You’re general counsels, you defend your company. What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare,” Feinstein said during the hearing. “We are not going to go away, gentlemen. And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won’t do.”
“You have a huge problem on your hands,” Feinstein continued. “And the US is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going to follow, I’m sure. Because you bear this responsibility. You created these platforms … and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it – or we will.”
“Don’t let nation-states disrupt our future,” Sen. Richard Burr told the tech company lawyers in his closing statement. “You’re our front line of defense.”
Here’s a full recap of Tuesday’s hearing, during which Stretch acknowledged that “there were signals we missed.”
Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in prepared remarks on Wednesday that “not one of us is doing enough to stop” Russian operatives from hijacking the “national conversation” in an attempt to “make Americans angry”:
In this age of social media, you can’t afford to waste too much time – or too many characters – in getting the point across, so I’ll get straight to the bottom line.
Russian operatives are attempting to infiltrate and manipulate American social media to hijack the national conversation and to make Americans angry, to set us against ourselves and to undermine our democracy. They did it during the 2016 US presidential campaign. They are still doing it now. And not one of us is doing enough to stop it.
That is why we are here today.
In many ways, this threat is not new. Russians have been conducting information warfare for decades.
But what is new is the advent of social media tools with the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall. Today’s tools seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation techniques.
Russia’s playbook is simple but formidable. It works like this:
Disinformation agents set up thousands of fake accounts, groups, and pages across a wide array of platforms.
These fake accounts populate content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, and others.
Each of these fake accounts spend months developing networks of real people to follow and like their content, boosted by tools like paid ads and automated bots. Most of their real-life followers have no idea they are caught up in this web.
These networks are later utilized to push an array of disinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda (like RT and Sputnik), fake news, and divisive content.
The goal here is to get this content into the news feeds of as many potentially receptive Americans as possible and to covertly and subtly push them in the direction the Kremlin wants them to go.
As one who deeply respects the tech industry and was involved in the tech business for 20 years, it has taken me some time to really understand this threat. Even I struggle to keep up with the language and mechanics. The difference between bots, trolls, and fake accounts. How they generate likes, tweets, and shares. And how all of these players and actions are combined into an online ecosystem.
What is clear, however, is that this playbook offers a tremendous bang for the disinformation buck. With just a small amount of money, adversaries use hackers to steal and weaponize data, trolls to craft disinformation, fake accounts to build networks, bots to drive traffic, and ads to target new audiences. They can force propaganda into the mainstream and wreak havoc on our online discourse. That’s a big return on investment.
So where do we go from here?
It will take all of us – the platform companies, the United States government, and the American people – to deal with this new and evolving threat.
Social media and the innovative tools each of you have developed have changed our world for the better. You have transformed the way we do everything from shopping for groceries to growing our small businesses. But Russia’s actions are further exposing the dark underbelly of the ecosystem you have created. And there is no doubt that their successful campaign will be replicated by other adversaries – both nation-states and terrorists – that wish to do harm to democracies around the globe.
As such, each of you here today needs to commit more resources to identifying bad actors and, when possible, preventing them from abusing our social media ecosystem.
Thanks in part to pressure from this committee, each company has uncovered some evidence of the ways Russians exploited their platforms during the 2016 election.
For Facebook, much of the attention has been focused on the paid ads Russian trolls targeted to Americans. However, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The real story is the amount of misinformation and divisive content that was pushed for free on Russian-backed pages, which then spread widely on the news feeds of tens of millions of Americans.
According to data Facebook has provided, 120 Russian-backed pages built a network of over 3.3 million real people. From these now suspended pages, 80,000 organic unpaid posts reached an estimated 126 million real people. That is an astonishing reach from just one group in St. Petersburg. And I doubt that the so-called Internet Research Agency represents the only Russian trolls out there. Facebook has more work to do to see how deep this goes, including looking into the reach of the IRA-backed Instagram posts, which represent another 120,000 pieces of content.
The anonymity provided by Twitter and the speed by which it shares news makes it an ideal tool to spread disinformation. According to one study, during the 2016 campaign, junk news actually outperformed real news in some battleground states in the lead-up to Election Day. Another study found that bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on Twitter over the entire presidential campaign.
I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly underestimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation. Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15% of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million accounts – are fake or automated. Despite evidence of significant incursion and outreach from researchers, Twitter has, to date, only uncovered a small percentage of that activity, though I am pleased to see that number has been rising in recent weeks.
Google’s search algorithms continue to have problems in surfacing fake news or propaganda. Though we can’t necessarily attribute to the Russian effort, false stories and unsubstantiated rumors were elevated on Google Search during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, YouTube has become RT’s go-to platform. You have also now uncovered 1,100 videos associated with this campaign. Much more of your content was likely spread through other platforms.
It is not just the platforms that need to do more. The US government has thus far proven incapable of adapting to meet this 21st-century challenge. Unfortunately, I believe this effort is suffering, in part, because of a lack of leadership at the top. We have a president who remains unwilling to acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy. President Trump should stop actively delegitimizing American journalism and acknowledge and address this real threat posed by Russian propaganda.
Congress, too, must do more. We need to recognize that current law was not built to address these threats. I have partnered with Sens. Klobuchar and McCain on a light-touch legislative approach, which I hope my colleagues will review. The Honest Ads Act is a national-security bill intended to protect our elections from foreign influence.
Finally – but perhaps most importantly – the American people also need to be aware of what is happening on our news feeds. We all need to take a more discerning approach to what we are reading and sharing, and who we are connecting with online. We need to recognize that the person at the other end of that Facebook or Twitter argument may not be a real person at all.
The fact is that this Russian weapon has already proven its success and cost-effectiveness. We can all be assured that other adversaries, including foreign intelligence operatives and potentially terrorist organizations, are reading their playbook and already taking action. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for this committee’s final report before taking action to respond to this threat to our democracy.
To our witnesses today, I hope you will detail what you saw in this last election and tell us what steps you will undertake to get ready for the next one. We welcome your participation and encourage your continued commitment to addressing this shared responsibility.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, also gave an opening statement, welcoming the general counsels and saying Wednesday’s hearing was a chance for them to “correct the record.”
“My sense is that not all aspects of those stories have been told accurately,” he said.