WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators needled lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google for answers on how their platforms permitted Russian influencers to target users and publish ads spreading disinformation during the 2016 election.
The Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism held the hearing Tuesday, one day after Facebook announced Russian operatives had circulated content to up to 126 million users. Twitter has also revealed 2,752 profiles were controlled by the Russian firm Internet Research Agency, and an over 36,000 automated “bots” published 1.4 million propaganda-based tweets during the 2016 election.
Google also said Monday it found just over 1,000 videos – 43 hours of content – connected to Russian influencers. The Kremlin also purchased from Google totaling $4,700.
While many of the senators praised the representatives for their companies’ innovations, a bipartisan agreement was reached swiftly by the committee and oft repeated: the sheer power of each platform for personal expression is awe-inducing but the prospect of regulating ad content is a minefield of potential First Amendment violations.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., acknowledged the need for caution, saying Congress “need not be censors” but the spread of Russian propaganda “like wildfire” was unacceptable.
“No disrespect to your companies, but what I hear today, are a lot of Johnny-come-latelies. A lot of you could have done more a lot earlier and I suspect your ad departments have seen profits go up,” Leahy said. “I wish they would have spent some of those profits earlier looking at the content [of the ads].”
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch had difficulty convincing Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-Ky., that his company has the capacity to identify all bad actors who use loopholes on the site to distribute their content, let alone the ability to begin reviewing all of the data for offensive or illegal content – including political ads purchased by foreign powers to sway an election.
“How can you be aware? You’ve got 5 million advertisers per month and you’re going to tell me that you’re able to trace the origin of [them all?]” Kennedy asked. “You’re telling me you have the ability to go through all of these corporations and find the true identities of every one of your advertisers? You’re not telling me that, are you?”
Stretch deflected, saying the company “could not see beyond the activity on the platform,” and that it only followed “technical signals” it receives that would help identify inauthentic behavior.
Kennedy again said, “I’m trying to get us down from la-la land. You have 5 million advertisers per month and that changes probably every month, every minute, probably every second. You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is today, right now?”
Stretch answered, “Seeing behind the platform, the answer is no, we cannot see behind the activity.”
In hopes of making that process more transparent, a solution was proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., vis a vis the Honest Ads Act.
The legislation requires digital platforms which retain more than 50 million monthly viewers to create a catalog of political ads for the public showing who or what group spent more than $500 on advertising. Under the bill, the database would include the ad, a description of its targeted audience, its viewing metrics and other basics.
Klobuchar asked all three attorneys – Stretch, Google attorney Richard Salgado and Twitter’s counsel Sean Edgett – if they would support the bill.
None of the attorneys said yes, but promised the committee to base its internal guidance on rules laid out in the act.
Salgado promised Google would publish a transparency report on election ads which identifies purchasers of ad content and how much money was spent.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., also asked for a commitment from the companies to stop accepting foreign currency for ads. He was rebuffed, and blasted the companies over the irony of what unfolded over the last two years.
“How did you not make the connection that ads were being paid for – American political ads – paid for in Russian money, in rubles? How could you not connect those two dots? You put billions of data points together all the time,” Franken railed. “Google has all of the knowledge that man has ever developed and you can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go, ‘Hmm, do those two data points spell out something bad?”
Stretch leaned into the microphone.
“Senator, it’s a signal we should have been alert to and in hindsight, it is one we missed,” he said.
Franken also asked Stretch if Facebook had developed a specific plan to target buyers or bots who use the site’s self-service ad buying program. A ProPublica report, the senator noted, recently discovered that Facebook allowed its self-service ad buyers to target more than 200 people interested in the topic “Jew hater” and other anti-Semitic themes.
That particular ad was purchased by a bot, not a human being, and was removed – but only after reporters notified the company it existed.
“How can such categories like this even be generated and allowed to persist without any human oversight? Is it really possible they didn’t know the categories existed until the media told you?” Franken asked.
Stretch promised standards and oversight would be more rigorous.
As the three-hour long hearing wrapped, Sen. Kennedy gave the panel his final assessment on their ability to identify bad actors and respond accordingly.
“You’re good, but you’re not that good,” he said.