Partisan Lines Drawn on Russian Social Media Influence in 2016

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“A lot of folks, including many in the media, have tried to reduce this entire conversation down to one premise: foreign actors conducted a surgically executed covert operation to help elect a United States president,” said Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the committee. “I’m here to tell you this story does not simplify that easily.”

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, emphasized that the real intent of Russian propaganda was to generally spread misinformation and chaos.

“These operations, they’re not limited to 2016 and not limited to the presidential race, and they continue to this day. They are much more widespread than one election,” Mr. Rubio said.

Democrats, however, trained their remarks on the direct connection between Russian activity and the election.

“The Russians created Facebook pages, posted YouTube videos, all trying to appeal to specific audiences,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, said.

The partisan dynamics put the social media companies in a difficult position, and Facebook wouldn’t take a side.

“We’ve provided all the information we can about the content that we’ve identified on the system,” said Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, suggesting that the committee assess “all of the online and offline activity that would be necessary to effectuate a campaign.”

Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat from New Mexico, aimed at Mr. Trump’s dismissal of the role of social media in his win.

“Last month President Trump called Russian purchased Facebook ads a hoax. I’ve looked at those Russian sponsored Facebook ads. I certainly hope you’ve had a chance to review them. Are they, in fact, a hoax?” Mr. Heinrich said.

“No. The existence of those ads were on Facebook, and it was not a hoax,” Mr. Stretch said

Senators train their fire on Facebook.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has largely spearheaded the effort prodding Facebook into handing over data, immediately went after the social media giant in his questioning.

In a seven-minute exchange, most of Mr. Warner’s time was spent dressing down Mr. Stretch for what he characterized as a lack of responsiveness from Facebook as his office repeatedly asked for more data on the extent to which Russian meddling influenced the election.

“I have more than a little bit of frustration that many of us on this committee have been raising this issue since the beginning of this year, and our claims were frankly blown off by the leadership of your companies,” Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Warner hammered his point with blown-up prints of some of the Facebook posts that circulated. One featured an illustration of Hillary Clinton in a fistfight with a picture of Jesus, an inflammatory ad aimed at riling up conservative Americans.

Several senators trained their attacks on Facebook on Wednesday for its inadvertent role in the Russian influence campaign, a repeat of Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

“I must say, I don’t think you get it,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who was also at Tuesday’s hearing. “I went home last night disappointed. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers.”

Facebook defends its reasons for taking down ads.

As senators pressed Facebook’s general counsel on Facebook’s role in the election, one of the hallmarks of Facebook’s explanation has been the issue of “authentic accounts.”

Since Facebook went public with its findings, the company’s reasoning for taking down more than 80,000 fake, Russian-linked ads, was not the type of content they posted, but because those responsible for them had misrepresented who they were when creating the accounts.

That distinction is key for Facebook. Outside of some parameters like nudity or incitement to violence, executives at the company are wary of becoming the arbiters of what content is or is not allowed on Facebook, fearing accusations of censorship.

“We don’t take for granted that each one of you uses Facebook to connect with your constituents, and that the people you represent expect authentic experiences when they come to our platform to share,” Mr. Stretch said in his opening remarks on Tuesday.

Mr. Burr asked if Facebook would have shut down the 470 Russian-linked accounts if they weren’t fake.

“Does it trouble you it took this committee to look at the authentic nature of the users and the content?” Mr. Burr asked Facebook’s general counsel.

Mr. Stretch didn’t directly answer. “The authenticity issue is the key,” Mr. Stretch said, noting that many of those accounts would have been shut down anyway because they violated other terms of service.

But ads were only one way Russia influenced the election.

Political ads are just part of the problem, Mr. Warner said at Wednesday’s first hearing.

Russian agents spread nonpaid content through the creation of pages on Facebook dedicated to hot-button issues like race. On Twitter, the Kremlin-connected internet Research Agency used automatic messaging tools known as bots that could quickly spread tweets through multiple accounts.

“For Facebook, much of the attention has been focused on the paid ads Russian trolls targeted to Americans. However, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg,” Mr. Warner said. “The real story is the amount of misinformation and divisive content that was pushed for free on Russian-backed pages, which then spread widely on the news feeds of tens of millions of Americans.”

Twitter is still lowballing Russian intrusion.

Earlier this week, Twitter, Facebook and Google revealed new information and numbers showing that foreign interference on their site was worse than they first reported. But the companies all stressed that the amount of Russian propaganda that reached users was just a sliver of the total amount of content their platforms produce every day.

But some lawmakers think the companies are holding back information.

Twitter said it identified 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian operatives and more than 36,000 “bots” that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. The company had previously told lawmakers it found only 201 accounts linked to Russia.

The new numbers still seem low, according to Mr. Warner.

“I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly underestimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation. Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million accounts – are fake or automated,” Mr. Warner said in his opening statement.

Mr. Burr also noted the slow reaction by internet companies.

With Facebook’s acknowledgment that 126 million people were exposed to Russia-linked content instead of the 10 million people they originally estimated, “tells me that your companies are just beginning to come grips with the scale and the depth of the problem,” Mr. Burr said.

Video

How Russian Bots and Trolls Invade Our Lives — and Elections

How do bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence U.S. elections? We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work.


By NATALIA V. OSIPOVA and AARON BYRD on Publish Date October 31, 2017.


Photo by Aaron Byrd/The New York Times.

Watch in Times Video »

“Your actions need to catch up to your responsibilities,” he added.

Google defends its stance on RT.

For a second straight day, Ms. Feinstein asked Google why it continues to allow RT to continue to publish videos on YouTube even though a report from the American intelligence community has described RT, formerly known as Russia Today, as the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet.”

Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, walked a fine line, saying that RT’s influence goes beyond merely YouTube; he noted that RT is available on cable and satellite television packages. It advertises in newspapers and can be found on hotel television channels.

Google has reviewed RT’s content and found that no violations to YouTube’s community guidelines, Mr. Walker said. He said that the company provides information about the “government-funded nature” of RT on Google — presumably on search results — and said it is considering expanding that to YouTube. He didn’t elaborate how Google plans to do so.

On Tuesday in a separate hearing, Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said Google dropped RT from its top advertising tier because of “a drop in viewership” — not because of its content.

Ms. Feinstein said Google’s answers were unsatisfactory. She repeated an earlier admonition of the tech companies: “We’re in a different day now.”

— Daisuke Wakabayashi

Are American companies beholden to the American government?

Despite being located in the San Francisco Bay Area, all of three tech companies position themselves as “global platforms.” The internet, as Mr. Stretch noted on Tuesday, is borderless.

But the distinction presents a number of problems for the companies, particularly on foreign interference in American elections. Are technology companies beholden to protecting the interests of the nations they reside in? Or do they answer to some higher authority?

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, noted that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks continue to use Twitter and other digital outlets to publish document dumps and email leaks, some of which are damaging to Americans.

“Is it biased to side with America against our adversaries?” Mr. Cotton asked, painting Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks as anti-American.

Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, demurred. “We try to be unbiased across the world.”

Facebook has also faced criticism for allegedly suppressing content at the request of some governments. In Myanmar, whose government’s violence against the Rohingya people has been labeled by the United Nations as ethnic cleansing, Facebook is in a bind when it is forced to take sides with either the government or a faction deemed to be outlaws by the state.

Recently, Twitter broke ranks with Google and Facebook in its treatment of Russia Today and Sputnik, state-backed media agencies in Russia. Twitter banned RT and Sputnik from advertising on its platform and donated the funds to external research into how Twitter is used for civic engagement and elections. Facebook and the Google-owned YouTube have not taken the same route, citing that RT and Sputnik have not broken their terms of service agreements.

But Twitter’s move puts the company in a difficult position: What if Russia, for example, claims that an American news network is a state-backed propaganda arm in America, and demands that such a network be banned from advertising as well?

The executives left a judiciary subcommittee wanting.

Top executives for the three companies appeared before a judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday armed with regrets and pledges to do better. The lawmakers appeared to be unimpressed.

Facebook came under particularly heavy fire, as senators from both parties pressed the companies on their sluggish responses.

“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is, and begin to work in a responsible way to address it?” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, asked in one pointed exchange.

The senators also raised doubts that efforts outlined by the companies — Facebook, for instance, said that it would hire more than 1,000 people to review political ad purchases — would protect the United States from outside influence.

“I’m trying to get us down from La-La Land here,” said Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana. “The truth of the matter is, you have five million advertisers that change every month. Every minute. Probably every second. You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, pushed the executives to weigh in on legislation that would require the companies to report who funds political ads online. In response, they suggested voluntary efforts already underway but said they hoped to work with lawmakers on such requirements.

The House committee will release copies of the Russian ads.

The House intelligence committee is expected on Wednesday to publicly release much-anticipated copies of Facebook ads purchased by Russian-linked accounts.

The top Republican and Democrat leading the investigation, Representatives Mike Conaway of Texas and Adam Schiff of California, pledged to do so this month after a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.

A few of the ads have leaked out, and others have been described by people who have viewed them, but the release should help cast new light on the Russian efforts.

Facebook’s bullish posture to Wall Street.

Wednesday will be a particularly busy day for Facebook, which will also report its third-quarter earnings at 4 p.m. Eastern, around the middle of the day’s second hearing.

The company, which is used by more than 2 billion people worldwide, is expected to post stellar results, with revenues from advertising jumping 41 percent from the same quarter last year to $9.88 billion.

With its stock trading at a record high and the company’s market capitalization over $500 billion — more than the gross domestic product of countries like Columbia and Taiwan — Facebook’s business success clashes with the posture it will present to lawmakers.

To members of Congress, Facebook will be contrite and stress the challenges of fixing its technology to prevent abuse of its site by foreign governments. But to investors, the message this afternoon will be decidedly bullish.

That contradiction is at the heart of the problem Facebook is confronting. Its business model, all based on advertising, is largely automated and reward the most viral content, even at the sake of the public interest.

The problem is worse than originally thought.

Facebook, Twitter and Google said on Monday, before their testimony, that the problems on the platforms were much worse than initially disclosed, illustrating the breadth and complexity of Russian efforts.

According to testimony by the companies, Russian agents spread inflammatory posts that reached 126 million Facebook users, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded more than 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service.

The latest disclosure will most likely serve to underline complaints among lawmakers that the tech giants have been slow to recognize and react to the significance of the Russian campaign.

Mr. Warner has been sharply critical of Twitter, in particular, telling reporters in September that the company’s initial efforts “showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Warner and others are likely to bore into the details of the companies’ internal investigations, questioning their rigor, as well remedies the companies have already volunteered.

They will also want to hear about solutions to issues beyond the disclosure of paid political advertising, like the influence of bots and “organic posts” harnessed by foreign powers.

“Transparency in advertising alone, however, is not a solution to the deployment of bots that amplify fake or misleading content or to the successful efforts of online trolls to promote divisive messages,” Mr. Schiff said recently.

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