Social Media, Tech Companies Get Capitol Hill Grilling

Social Media companies testify on the Hill.

Several of the largest tech companies in Silicon Valley had representatives testifying today on Capitol Hill. Pressure has been mounting on tech companies to turn over records that pertain to Russian influence in the 2016 election.

Scope Widens of Russian Social Media Propaganda

Top executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter will have to sit for two days of questioning before Congress. All three tech giants announced yesterday that their previous estimates of the number of Russian agent accounts were all too low.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been slow to acknowledge Russia propaganda activity on the social media platform. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts on Facebook that reached 126 million people. Facebook wasn’t alone here. Russian agents spread 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos on YouTube (owned by Google.) Therefore, these companies expect a grilling from congressional investigators.

In one example, Facebook pointed to the Internet Research Company (IRC). This is a Russian Internet group with ties to the Kremlin. Between 2015 and 2017, the IRC pubished 80,000 different pieces of content on Facebook. They initially reached 9 million people, but with likes and shares they reached tens of millions more.

Colin Stretch, Facebook general counsel, said in remarks that Russia’s attempts were “an insidious attempt to drive people apart.”

Russia Ads Reached Tens of Millions

Twitter identified 2,700 accounts linked to the IRC in the last three months before the 2016 election. Apart from those, there were a total of 36,000 Russian-linked, automated accounts that tweeted 1.4 million times in the same time period. These tweets reached an astounding 288 million views.

The topics that Russia propaganda focused on ranged from gun rights, to gay and transgender rights, to race relations.

Heated Testimony

Senator Al Franken, never one to bore audiences, implored Facebook to reject electoral ad buys made with foreign currency. “How did Facebook…somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?” he said.

Yet, the executives balked at this idea. “It’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies,” Said Mr. Sretch.

“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better,” Senator Franken said.

Solving the Problem

Twitter is doubling its staff that flags and removes objectionable content; at 10,000 strong now to a hopeful 20,000. Twitter has also banned Russia Today (RT) from the platform.

Facebook plans on testing a tool that lets users see who has bought and paid for political ads that they’re exposed to.