In their marathon testimony sessions before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the House Intelligence Committee this week, tech giants Facebook, Google and Twitter managed to accomplish an incredibly rare political feat: getting lawmakers to unite around one issue.
Republicans and Democrats alike took turns pressing the companies’ counsels about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. All three have already admitted that, during the election, Russian actors pumping out divisive posts designed to inflame America’s social tensions under the noses of the tech giants. But the true extent of their influence, and the difficulties that companies face in monitoring for misinformation, were the multitude of new revelations that companies admitted during the Senate sessions.
Here are some key takeaways so far.
The number of users exposed to Russian misinformation is massive — and it keeps rising
When Facebook announced that it would hand over 3,000 Russia-linked ads to Congress in September, Zuckerberg stressed that “the amount of problematic content we’ve found remains relatively small.” In an October blog post, Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s Vice President of Policy, said around 10 million Americans saw the ads and also admitted it was “possible” that the notorious St. Petersburg Troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, was linked to influencing attempts.
Independent analyses at the time showed those numbers to be suspiciously small. A September report by the Daily Beast estimated that as many as 70 million Americans saw the Russian-linked posts. Then in October, an investigation by the Russian news agency RBC found that the Internet Research Agency was involved with election interference, and that its posts received an estimated 70 million hits a week in the month before the election.
On Monday, Facebook revealed that the number of users who had seen Russian-linked content was larger – much, much larger – than originally believed. The company testified that up to 126 million people had been exposed to the Russian misinformation, which was described by Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch as an “insidious attempt to drive people apart.” On Wednesday, Stretch then raised that number even further, noting that the company had found millions more Instagram users who had been exposed to the fraudulent Russian accounts — bringing the total to nearly 150 million.
And that doesn’t even account for Twitter, which said it found 1.4 million election-related tweets from September 2016 to November 2016. These accounts received some 288 million views over a 10-week span. It remains unclear why Twitter selected only a 2.5-month span for its examination, but given that the accounts in questions were live through the middle of 2017, the number of total views is almost certainly higher.
Frustration with tech giants: a bi-partisan consensus
One of the more surprising takeaways from the past few days of hearings was perhaps just how united Republicans and Democrats alike were in their pointed criticism of the tech giants, especially Facebook and Twitter. From Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) exasperation to Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) questions on the tech giants’ patriotism, from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) warnings to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) questions about the expansive scope of adversaries abusing the social media sphere, the hearings pointed to a rare thing in Washington: consensus.
Such a united front should perhaps be unsurprising. While Facebook’s Stretch — who appeared rattled for much of his time in Washington — confirmed that many of the ads and accounts leading up to the election focused on undercutting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, he also noted that many of the accounts in question promptly turned toward questioning Donald Trump’s legitimacy, and channeling anti-Trump fervor.
The hearings provided numerous sound-bites of the bipartisan frustration. During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Cotton lambasted the behavior of the tech companies. “Most American citizens would expect American companies to put the interests of our country above, not on par with, our adversaries,” he said. “This kind of attitude is not acceptable to the large majority of Americans and it would be part of what led to unwise or imprudent regulation, not sensible and smart regulation.”
Cotton also asked, pointedly, whether or not it was “biased” for American companies “to side with America over our adversaries,” to which Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett replied, “We’re trying to be unbiased all over the world.”
Elsewhere, Feinstein unleashed on the companies — and it’s worth reading one of her quotes in full:
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. And the U.S. 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 they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it—or we will.
Regulation is on the tip of everyone’s tongue – and that frightens Silicon Valley
Much of the senators’ frustrations pointed toward increasing appetite for discussing potential regulations moving forward. Actual legislation that would regulate the tech giants is still a far way off, but it has begun to be mentioned as an option, even among Republicans who would normally balk at any sort of government interference into some of America’s most successful companies. “We have a lot of laws regulating your behavior and what can be advertised, political ads are regulated but in social media it’s pretty much the Wild West,” Graham said. “I’m convinced now that self-regulation is not going to work, we’re going to have to give these companies some structure.”
Americans are split 50-50 over the need to regulate tech giants, and any efforts to regulate firms which have just reached record highs on the stock market would undoubtedly be met by fierce resistance. However there remains a general sense that tech companies, and Facebook in particular, have grown too big and cannot effectively regulate themselves.
“We’re getting hit from every way you can possibly imagine, and you all are the largest distributors of news and there can be no doubt it has to be authentic and true. You cannot allow what’s going on against the U.S.A.,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said. “It can’t be a business model, it has to be a security issue.”
Thanks to congressional hearings, Americans are finally learning about the Russian accounts in question
Despite claims of “transparency”, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been remarkably coy about releasing information on the ads and accounts in question to the public. For instance, Stretch claimed, laughably, that Facebook “agree[s] that the more people that can see the content that ran, the better.” Facebook, of course, has avoided releasing any of the ads, names of the accounts, or which users were targeted to the public; Twitter and Google have largely done the same.
Thankfully, Congress is willing to do what the tech giants won’t. In both the hearings and online, congressional officials released texts, names, and images associated with the ads and accounts linked to the Russian troll farm.
For instance, at long last, we caught a glimpse of some of the Facebook ads pushed — with the first coming from the “Heart of Texas” Texas secession page:
While viewers didn’t learn about any new Facebook accounts run by Russians — there are still hundreds Facebook hasn’t identified publicly — the House Intelligence Committee thankfully posted the names of thousands of Russia-linked Twitter accounts. One of the accounts confirmed as Russian includes the @10_GOP account, first flagged by ThinkProgress, that Trump himself retweeted and thanked as president.
There are hundreds — and possibly thousands — more Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google accounts yet to be revealed, but thanks to the hearings we’re finally prying open some of the identifying information the tech giants have thus far refused to reveal to the public.
Not just a U.S. problem: fake news tactics are spreading far and wide with devastating results
The relentless focus on Russian interference masks the fact that the same misinformation tactics are being used abroad, often to horrendous effect. In Myanmar, internet trolls have been instrumental in stoking tensions over the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, spreading fake news stories which claim the group is trying to take over the country. Facebook has also labeled Rohingya insurgents a “dangerous organization” and ordered moderators to delete any content that praises them. As Buzzfeed News reported, Facebook is also being used in South Sudan to spread false stories and exaggerations, which is helping to fan the flames of ethnic cleansing.
“In a lot of these countries, Facebook is the de facto public square,” Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times. “Because of that, it raises really strong questions about Facebook needing to take on more responsibility for the harms their platform has contributed to.”
Less economically developed countries aren’t the only ones that should be concerned: Germany had to contend with an online army spreading disinformation and far-right memes during their recent elections, while Finland has had to deal with Russian fake news and online propaganda. Together, these incidents show just how Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams of global connectivity are rapidly turning into a global nightmare.
“The Kremlin disinformation playbook will also be adopted by authoritarians, dark political campaigns and unregulated global corporations,” former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts testified to the Senate. “They will use this type of social media manipulation to influence weaker countries, harm less educated, vulnerable people and mire business challengers.”