Senators from both parties blasted Facebook, Google and Twitter for failing to grasp the magnitude of Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election, but some Republicans sought to blunt Democratic concerns that the meddling helped Donald Trump win the White House.
The companies’ general counsels took sharp questions at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday from lawmakers who charged them with not recognizing or properly investigating the scope of Russia’s influence operation as it surged through their networks.
Story Continued Below
“I don’t think you get it. I think the fact that you’re general counsels, you defend your company,” Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said at the hearing about Russia’s use of social media in the 2016 election. “What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) chastised the companies about their responsibility, telling them: “This is about national security … [and a] deliberate and multifaceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power.”
“We have no doubt that there are attempted efforts at interference,” Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said. “It’s something we’re focused on addressing going forward. In terms of whether it had an outcome on the election, that’s not something we’re in a position to judge.” Each of the companies said their internal probes are not yet complete.
However, led by Burr, some Republicans cast doubt on the idea that U.S. voters had been swayed by the Kremlin campaign, saying the impact of Russia’s efforts are unclear. Citing a news report that Russia-linked Facebook ads were aimed at the battleground states of Michigan and Wisconsin, Burr said the situation wasn’t that simple.
“The narrative here is that ads linked to Russia were targeted at pivotal states and directly influenced the election’s outcome,” he said. “What you haven’t heard is that almost five times more ads were targeted at the state of Maryland than of Wisconsin.”
Burr said Maryland voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and added that Washington, D.C., was also targeted by a higher number of ads than Pennsylvania. He said his panel’s hearing and investigation were not intended to “relitigate” the outcome of the election.
Virginia’s Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, stressed the ongoing nature of the Russian threat. Russians are using social media to “set us against ourselves and to undermine our democracy,” he said. “They did it during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. They are still doing now.”
Warner called on Facebook, Google and Twitter to “commit more resources” to identify those who exploit their networks for nefarious purposes.
“You have transformed the way we do everything from shopping for groceries to growing our small businesses,” Warner said. “But Russia’s actions are further exposing the dark underbelly of the ecosystem you have created.”
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) used his personal experiences running for office to argue that foreign meddling via social media to sow discord is a broad, deep and ongoing problem.
Rubio said Russia-linked groups attacked his 2016 presidential campaign during the primary season, and said some of the organizations — with names like “United Muslims of America,” “LGBT United” and “Heart of Texas” — continued to work against him when he ran for Senate re-election after dropping out of the presidential race.
“These operations are not limited to 2016, and they were not limited to the presidential race. They continue to this day,” Rubio said. “They are much more widespread than one election. It’s about our general political climate.”
Warner also criticized the companies for not going far enough in their disclosures to congressional investigators about the extent of Russian meddling on their platforms.
Facebook initially told committee representatives last month that it found 3,000 Facebook ads purchased by the Russia-backed Internet Research Agency. Then Monday, the company revealed the existence of some 80,000 unpaid posts and other “organic content.” Now, it said 146 million users of Facebook and Instagram were exposed to Russia-linked content, including paid ads and organic content.
That number was up even from prior figures that the company shared earlier this week.
Warner told Twitter that the company “seems to be vastly under-estimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation.” He baderted that Twitter has only uncovered a small percentage of activity from fake accounts.
OTHER KEY MOMENTS FROM THE HEARING
Senate Intelligence Committee debates releasing Facebook ads: Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) urged Facebook to release the Russian-linked paid ads that it’s identified, saying there’s disagreement on the Senate Intelligence Committee about whether the committee should do so. Facebook’s Stretch said it would be better for the committee to release the ads rather than the company.
“We have a disagreement on this committee as to whether or not to release those. I would urge all of you as platforms to consider that kind of activity as well,” Heinrich said in response. James Lankford (R-Okla.) sided with Heinrich, saying sharing the ads with users could help them be aware of what Russian-linked efforts look like. The House Intelligence Committee released some ads at the hearing Wednesday.
Internal Russia probes not done: Representatives from each of the companies said they haven’t yet identified the full scope of Russian interference on their platforms. “Our investigation continues, so I would have to say no, certainly not with certainty,” Stretch said, responding to a question about whether it’s complete. The tech giants also committed to keep working with Congress and providing additional information as investigations into Russian election interference continue.
How Americans fell for Russia-bought content: Burr and Warner said Americans were sucked into seemingly innocuous Facebook groups without understanding that Russia elements were using them to manipulate the U.S. political landscape. Burr displayed a poster of a Facebook post that purported to be from a group promoting Texas secession. It read, “Texas — Homeland of guns, BBQ, and ur heart!” It had been placed by Russian-based actors, and sought to draw users to an offline rally, Burr said.
And Warner displayed posts from a Facebook group called “Army for Jesus” that for a time consisted of simply Bible quotes and similar material. More than 200,000 initially joined that group, and closer to the U.S. presidential election, its content suddenly shifted to political material, like one post depicting Hillary Clinton as the devil, with the tagline, “‘Like’ if you want Jesus to win!”
Facebook ‘failed’ at convening people, Burr says: The fact that Russian-linked groups infiltrated Facebook with divisive content means the social media company “failed” at its goal of bringing people together during the 2016 presidential election, Burr said, telling the company it “must do better to protect the American people.” Stretch said it is a “deeply painful lesson for us; it pains us.”
Wyden: Federal law allows tech companies to act against Russian manipulation: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told the companies that they have the legal protection they need to go after bad actors on their platforms. Wyden said the internet firms “failed” in their response to the Russian meddling and called that “especially troubling, because the same federal law that allowed your companies to grow and thrive, the Section 230 law, gives you absolute legal protection to take action against those who abused your platform and damaged our democracy.” Wyden was referring to a section of the Communications Decency Act that allows companies to block and screen offensive material without fear of legal recourse.
Full house in the Senate: The arrival of Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) means that all 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee turned up for the hearing. That’s a sign of how high-profile this topic has become, as it is somewhat rare for every member of a congressional committee to participate in a public hearing.
Kings wants Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Pichai to show up: Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) expressed displeasure that the chief executives of Twitter, Google and Facebook did not appear before the committee.
“I’m disappointed you’re here and not your CEOs, because we’re talking about policy and the policies of companies,” he told the general counsels. “It’s fine to send general counsel, but I think if you could take a message back from this committee, we would appreciate seeing the top people who are actually making the decisions.”
Tally of Clinton, Trump spending on Facebook ads: Facebook’s Stretch said the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent a combined $81 million on Facebook advertising during the 2016 presidential contest.
That newly released figured came during questioning by Roy Blunt, who suggested that the level of spending on Facebook ads by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency around the U.S. election — which the company has pegged at about $100,000 to promote some 3,000 ads — was insufficient to meaningfully shape how that election played out.
Steven Overly contributed to this report.