Election probe: Facebook, Google, Twitter go to Washington and get grilled by lawmakers

Facebook, Google and Twitter can act like a megaphone during elections, helping politicians and even foreign countries quickly spread their messages to a massive audience.

But the power these Silicon Valley tech firms hold is giving some lawmakers a huge fright.

On Tuesday, lawyers representing the three companies faced a marathon round of questions from U.S. lawmakers about how Russia used their platforms to meddle in the U.S. election.

“The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible,” said Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing. “That foreign actors hiding behind fake accounts abused our platform and other Internet services to try to sow division and discord and to try to undermine the election is directly contrary to our values.”

Here are some highlights from Tuesday’s hearing:

Behind the numbers: Facebook, Google and Twitter acknowledged any misuse of their platforms undermines democracy, but they also noted that Russian-linked content represents a small amount. From January 2015 to August 2017, Russian entities used ads to promote 120 Facebook pages they set up, which then posted more than 80,000 pieces of content. That represents about 0.004 percent of content shown in Facebook’s News Feed. But as users shared or liked these posts, Facebook said about 126 million people might have seen this content. Twitter said they found more than  36,746 automated accounts linked to Russia that posted 1.4 million tweets, representing about 0.74 percent of election-related tweets from September to November 2016. Google said it only found two accounts tied to the Russian government that spent roughly $4,700 during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Americans for Puppies and Prosperity: Some lawmakers questioned how well tech firms can trace the identity of their advertisers. “How do you deal with the problem of a legitimate and lawful, but phony American shell corporation, one that calls itself say Americans for Puppies and Prosperity, has a dropbox as its address and a $50 million check in its bank book that it is using to spend to manipulate election outcomes?,” asked Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island. Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett pointed to the work the company is doing to increase transparency around advertising and said they’re working on the best approach to identify who is behind these ads.

The frightful power of social media: Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, raised concerns about the massive amounts of data that social media companies collect on their users. “Do you have a profile on me?,” Kennedy asked.  Could Facebook find out information about a fellow lawmaker’s movie interests, friends or even bars he frequents? Stretch mentioned that Facebook allows advertisers to target users based on their characteristics and their likes, but aggregates their data to protect user privacy. “You can get around that to find the identity, can’t you?,” Kennedy asked. “No senator, I cannot,” Stretch replied.

Media company or tech platform: Is Google a media company or a neutral technology platform? The tech firm’s lawyer Richard Salgado replied that Google is the latter. “That’s what I thought you would say. You don’t think you’re…the largest newspaper in 92 countries?,” Kennedy asked. “We are not a newspaper. We are a platform for the sharing of information that can include news from sources such as newspapers,” Salgado said.

Balancing free speech: Some social media companies have faced accusations that they’re suppressing conservative content, a concern that a presidential candidate brought up during the hearing. “The prospect of Silicon Valley companies actively censoring speech or the news content is troubling to anyone who cares about a democratic process with a robust First Amendment,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The lawmaker then asked the tech firms if they consider their sites a neutral public forum. Stretch said that Facebook is a platform for all ideas and they have online rules that bars certain content such as hate speech. They don’t think of the platform as “neutral” because the company serves personalized content to users based on their online activities.

Connecting the dots: Why did it take so long for tech firms to figure out that Russian entities were using their services to influence the election? Sen. Al Franken,D-Minnesota, noted that the ads purchased with foreign currency should have signaled to the companies that something fishy was happening. “Those are two data points: American political ads, and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?,” he asked Facebook. Stretch said in hindsight there were signals that Facebook missed, but stopped short of saying that the tech firm would stop accepting political ads paid for with foreign currency. “The reason I’m hesitating on foreign currency is because it’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currency. It’s a signal, but not enough,” Stretch said. Franken then fired back, noting that it seemed unlikely that a foreign entity would switch currency to “trick” Facebook.

Photo Credit: (L to R) Colin Stretch, general counsel at Facebook, Sean Edgett, acting general counsel at Twitter, and Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security at Google, testify during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’ on Capitol Hill, October 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


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