At 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google will take questions from a Senate Judiciary subcommittee probing Russia’s disinformation push during the 2016 election. The hearing, entitled “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working with Tech to Find Solutions”, will feature Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security Richard Salgado, as well as a pair of analysts.
The hearing is one of the most anticipated moments since the public first began learning the extent of the fake social media accounts and ads purchased along the way, which were created by operatives out of Russia. It also comes amid a blast of new information expanding the scope of the Russian actors’ overall reach and revealing the full extent to which these fake accounts, aimed at both undercutting Hillary Clinton and sowing division and discord across the United States, were successful in spreading their message.
Gone are the days when Facebook was busy claiming that only 10 million users had been exposed to a few thousand Russian ads.
Yesterday, the social media behemoth revealed some of the latest estimates it plans to share with Congress. The numbers are staggering: per the Washington Post, Facebook believes over 120 million of its users were unwittingly exposed to Russian propaganda, a number equivalent to about half of all American adult Facebook users. Facebook counsel Stretch also plans to tell Congress that a single “troll farm” in St. Petersburg pumped out approximately 80,000 posts alone. These numbers are closer to the estimated 340 million “shares” that Jonathan Albright, a research director with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, estimated from the handful of pages that have thus far been confirmed as Russian.
According to a statement from Facebook spokesperson Alex Stamos, Facebook is “doing everything we can to be helpful and contribute our piece of the broader picture.” That claim, however, doesn’t square with Facebook’s recent history. Not only has the company avoided answering any number of journalist inquiries about the accounts in question — including which accounts have been linked to Russia, or who was targeted by the aforementioned ads — it’s also become clear that it took the company months to confirm that the false accounts were, indeed, run out of Russia, allowing the accounts to reach millions more Americans along the way.
There’s a real contradiction between Facebook saying Russian ads had no impact and Facebook telling brands to spend millions on Facebook ads
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) October 30, 2017
In the interim, as more journalists have dug into the fake accounts run out of Russia, the situation has worsened. Not only did Russian operatives organize the most popular Texas secession page on Facebook and manage to bring armed white supremacists into downtown Houston to square off with dozens of counter-protesters, the Wall Street Journal reported reported this week that one Russian page managed to turn out nearly 300 attendees for a Philando Castile rally in Minnesota — the largest Russian-organized rally uncovered thus far.
Even more egregious: that rally was set on the same day another Russian page organized a “Blue Lives Matter” protest in Dallas.
Given its open platform, findings on Russian reach on Twitter have generally been more thorough and substantial than findings released by Facebook. But the latest numbers serve to expose Russia’s efforts even further.
According to Business Insider, Twitter has estimated that approximately 37,000 Russia-linked accounts pushed some 1.4 million election-related tweets from September 1 through November 15, 2016. The tweets generated nearly 300 million impressions in those 10 weeks alone.
Twitter had previously revealed to Congress that only 201 accounts had been explicitly linked to Russia, but the company has now expanded that list to include at least 2,752 accounts. Not all of those accounts have been revealed — Twitter has declined to comment on specific accounts in question — but there are indications that, as recently as last month, some of these accounts were being retweeted or promoted by President Trump, following months of his inner circle doing the same.
Google, along with its YouTube subsidiary, has largely escaped public scrutiny when it comes to fake accounts run out of Russia, at least in comparison to Facebook and Twitter. But Google announced yesterday that it had discovered over 1,000 videos linked to Russian actors, with a pair of accounts spending nearly $5,000 during the election cycle. The identified videos reached over 300,000 total viewers.
Plenty of questions surround Google’s latest revelation as well as whatever data it may be holding back. A report by the Wall Street Journal noted that the company had already uncovered tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of political ads. One individual familiar with the search was blunt: “The further they dig, the more they come up with.”
Likewise, Google’s statement yesterday claimed that the company hadn’t uncovered any “political posts in English from state-linked actors on Google+” — a claim that flies in the face of ThinkProgress’ reporting. To wit, when ThinkProgress broke the story of the “Black Matters US” site — which has since transformed from a “news” site to one that admits on its home page that it’s run by Russian trolls — it identified an associated Google+ account attached to the site. That Google+ site, which promoted former Democratic candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) heavily, has since been removed.
While Facebook, Twitter, and Google are the primary focus of the upcoming congressional hearings, they were by no means the only platforms or organizations targeted by Russian actors.
Instagram, for instance, may come up in congressional discussions, as the company is owned by Facebook. Already, numerous Russian accounts have been tied to the platform. One such account, identified by ThinkProgress, even continued to pump out Russian propaganda on Texas secession after Facebook announced it had supposedly identified and taken down all suspect accounts.
Likewise, Pinterest has also seen similar Russian propaganda. Indeed, as Data for Democracy’s Jonathon Morgan noted, much of the material removed from fake Facebook and Twitter accounts remains available on Pinterest.
Elsewhere, fake material linked to these accounts has made its way to MeetUp and Eventbrite and remains available on SoundCloud and Tumblr. Related material from Medium was only removed after ThinkProgress’s reporting.
The “Russian Troll factory crew” had scheduled a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) for this Friday, but the event was removed over the weekend.