Facebook, Twitter Pledge to Defend Against Foreign Intrusion

WASHINGTON (CN) – Executives with Twitter and Facebook vowed on Wednesday to better protect their platforms from foreign interference in future elections, but conceded there is no shortage of challenges when it comes to rooting out the bad actors.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivered their assessment during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The appearance on Capitol Hill was a first for both executives.

Sandberg’s appearance came several months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in highly publicized Capitol Hill hearings.

Like Zuckerberg, she acknowledged Facebook’s lag in recognizing Russian efforts to manipulate Facebook during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sandberg detailed Facebook’s efforts to fight the problem with new technologies and manpower.

“We are even more determined than our adversaries, and we will continue to fight back,” Sandberg said.

In his opening remarks, Dorsey said Twitter witnessed activity affiliated with the Russia-linked Internet Research Agency, or IRA.

Ultimately, they located over 3,800 accounts linked to the agency yet located in Iran, he said.

The accounts were identified by Iranian mobile carrier numbers and email addresses, he explained.

This has happened despite the fact that Twitter is blocked in that country, Dorsey said.

Those actors have gamed Twitter by connecting through virtual private networks, he added.

Sandberg told senators that just this month Facebook removed 650 pages and accounts from their platform which originated in Iran.

Those accounts linked to sources the U.S. government has identified as Russian military intelligence services have also been removed, she said.

But the spread of misinformation from foreign influencers isn’t limited to the two countries: more than 50 accounts from Facebook in Myanmar have been removed for inauthentic posts.

Some of those accounts or ones like them, noted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., have incentivized violence toward the Rohingya, a Muslim-minority group which has suffered a devastating campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese Army.

“We discovered [these accounts] used seemingly independent news and opinion pages to covertly push the messages of the Myanmar military,” Sandberg testified.

Both Dorsey and Sandberg said they will continue to collaborate on preventative measures where they can, alerting one another to suspicious activity and coordinating their efforts with law enforcement or other federal agencies when needed.

“[When it comes to foreign influence,] this is not something we want to compete on,” Dorsey said.

At Facebook, quelling the spread of bots, or automated accounts, disseminating misinformation in general, and in some cases more specifically, to protected groups, means stricter regulations on advertisers.

Facebook will restrict political ad purchases that promote messages about U.S. elections to U.S. citizens only, Sandberg said.

A verification process is already running but will continue to be fine-tuned.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Sandberg to provide the committee with an updated report about action taken to stop “micro-targeting” of minority groups, sometimes victimized by ads changing voting places or hours.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked Dorsey what Twitter is doing to notify users when they are interacting with a bot.

Emphasizing the importance of giving users “context” around their online experience, Dorsey still admitted, “it becomes trickier where automation actually scripts the website to look like a human actor.”

“As far as we can identify these automations, we do,” Dorsey said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pressed both executives on a related point: once their platforms remove an impostor account, what is done to notify the followers of the account?

“We need something more than the tombstone of that company to be posted online. We need to tell people they were victims of a foreign influence campaign,” Collins said.

Sandberg said Facebook actively notified people who liked original IRA accounts established during the 2016 election and does the same now when new offenses occur.

For Twitter, the solutions are a work in progress but Dorsey admitted the company has fallen short.

“We simply haven’t done enough. We didn’t have enough communication going out, in terms of what was seen, what was tweeted or what people were falling into,” Dorsey said.

A representative from Google was also invited but did not attend.

Google’s absence was decried by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Wednesday and to drive the point home, an empty chair with a placard for the tech giant was placed next to Dorsey and Sandberg.

A representative from Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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