Lawyers from Facebook, Google and TwitterÂ are testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon amid mounting political pressure to fully investigate Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and reveal publicly what they find.
It is a rare moment in the political spotlight for companies that, despite large lobbying teams in Washington, generally seek to avoid such public and potentially unpredictable confrontations. A growing number of lawmakers, have expressed concern in recent weeks about the Russian online influence campaign and are vowing both to expose what happened and work to prevent a recurrence, through legislation if necessary.
Tuesday’s hearing by a Senate judiciary subcommittee comes a day after the prepared testimonies of Facebook and Twitter revealed that the reach of the Russian-connected misinformation campaign on their platforms was much larger than initially reported.
As many as 126 million Facebook usersÂ may have seen content produced and circulated by Russian operatives. Twitter said it had discovered that 2,752 accounts controlled by Russians, and more than 36,000 Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. And Google disclosed for the first time that it hadÂ foundÂ 1,108 videos with 43âhours of content related to the Russian effort on YouTube. It also found $4,700 worth of Russian search and display ads.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) opened the hearing by describing the dangers posed by the ability of terrorists to recruit followers over social media and foreign governments to meddle in American democracy.
“This is the national security challenge of the 21st Century,” Graham said.
The most important unanswered question, outside experts say, is whether the tech companies have evidence that might substantiate allegations that the Russians colluded with Donald Trump’s political campaign, which made Facebook in particular a focus of its election efforts in 2016. Trump and his campaign officials have repeatedly denied allegations of collusion, but questions about the role played by Russia are at the heart of investigations by Capitol Hill and Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose first round of charges against Trump campaign figures were unsealed Monday.
Tuesday’s hearing offers lawmakers a direct and highly public opportunity to question tech company officials aboutÂ how their platforms were manipulated, what they did in response, and what they plan to doÂ to thwart similar efforts in the future. None of the companies are sending their top internal security researchers to the hearing, opting instead to send senior company lawyers. Also testifying will be Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent and disinformation expert from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Michael S. Smith III, a terrorism analyst.
âWe are trying in the Subcommittee to lay out the Kremlin playbook on election interference generally, since this is something that they do in a great number of countries,â said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel hosting the first of the three hearings, in an interview on Monday. âAnd we are looking to delve into which elements of the the Kremlin playbook were deployed in the United States specifically.â
Testifying at Tuesday’s hearing are Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch, Google’sÂ director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado and Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett.
In his opening remarks, Stretch said, “The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible. That foreign actors, hiding behind safe accounts, abused our platform and other Internet services to try to sow division and discord — and to try to undermine the election — is an assault on democracy that is directly contrary to our values and violates everything Facebook stands for.”
Google’s Salgado said that while the company has found relatively small amounts of Russian manipulation on its services, “We understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious.”
He also said the company would create a publicly accessible database of all election ads purchased on Google’s ad platforms and on YouTube. The company will also publish a transparency reports for election ads which will identify the purchasers and how much money was spent.
The hearing, as well as Wednesday’s hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence committees, comes amid pushes by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to pass new legislation forcing tech companies to disclose information about political ads sold and distributed on their networks. Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that colleagues on the committee choseÂ to wait until they heard testimony of the tech companies before they signaled theirÂ interest.
The bill, dubbed the “Honest Ads Act,” would require digital platforms with more than 50 million monthly viewers to create a publicÂ databaseÂ of political ads purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500. The public file would include the ad, a description of the targeted audience, the number of views it generated, the date and time it ran, its price and contact information for the purchaser.
But even as lawmakers move to prevent future manipulation, they will use the hearings to probe howÂ foreign actors were able to disseminate propaganda.Â “Russia will be the star of the hearings,” said Darrell West, the director of the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation.
Beyond providing the public with a fuller picture of election meddling, experts said the hearings symbolize a broader recognition of theÂ significance massive tech platforms hold in AmericanÂ discourse and politics.
“It’s hard to reconcile the tens of billions of dollars of profit they make with the lack of attention they’ve had with something that could possibly affect our democracy,” said Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade organization that represents digital media companies. “The questioning is deeply uncomfortable for them because it gets to the root of their business model, which few people really understand.”