Facebook, Twitter, and Google are testifying on Russian election meddling — here’s what to expect – Business Insider


Facebook Twitter Google general council Colin Stretch senate intelligence meetingGetty/Drew Angerer

  • On Wednesday, top lawyers for Facebook, Twitter,
    and Google will appear before the House and
    Senate intelligence committees to answer questions about
    Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election.
  • The first hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. ET. The second
    hearing begins at 2 p.m. ET.

Top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google are testifying
before the House and Senate intelligence committees on Wednesday,
one day after being grilled
by another congressional committee
.

The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google were not
at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is expected to speak later
on the company’s quarterly earnings call, which Business
Insider will be covering after markets close.

The first Wednesday hearing, where general counsels for Facebook,
Twitter, and Google will appear before the Senate Intelligence
Committee, kicked off at 9:30 a.m. ET.

In attendance were Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel;
Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel; and Kent
Walker, Google’s general counsel who reports to the company’s
CEO, Sundar Pichai.

The second hearing of the day, before the House Intelligence
Committee, kicks off at 2 p.m. ET.

Here’s
a full recap of Tuesday’s hearing
, during which Stretch
acknowledged that “there were signals we missed.”


Senator Mark WarnerC-Span

Opening remarks

Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, said in prepared remarks on
Wednesday that “not one of us is doing enough to stop” Russian
operatives from hijacking the “national conversation” in an
attempt to “make Americans angry.”

In this age of social media, you can’t afford to waste too
much time — or too many characters — in getting the point across,
so I’ll get straight to the bottom line. 

Russian operatives are attempting to infiltrate and
manipulate American social media to hijack the national
conversation and to make Americans angry, to set us against
ourselves and to undermine our democracy.  They did it
during the 2016 US presidential campaign. They are still doing it
now. And not one of us is doing enough to stop it. 

That is why we are here today.

In many ways, this threat is not new. Russians have been
conducting information warfare for decades.

 

But what is new is the advent of social media tools with the
power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was
unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall. Today’s tools
seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation
techniques. 

Russia’s playbook is simple but formidable.  It
works like this:

Disinformation agents set up thousands of fake accounts,
groups, and pages across a wide array of platforms. 

These fake accounts populate content on Facebook, Instagram,
Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, and others.

Each of these fake accounts spend months developing networks
of real people to follow and like their content, boosted by tools
like paid ads and automated bots. Most of their real-life
followers have no idea they are caught up in this web.

These networks are later utilized to push an array of
disinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda
(like RT and Sputnik), fake news, and divisive content.

The goal here is to get this content into the news feeds of
as many potentially receptive Americans as possible and to
covertly and subtly push them in the direction the Kremlin wants
them to go.

As one who deeply respects the tech industry and was involved
in the tech business for twenty years, it has taken me some time
to really understand this threat.  Even I struggle to keep
up with the language and mechanics.  The difference between
bots, trolls, and fake accounts.  How they generate Likes,
Tweets, and Shares.  And how all of these players and
actions are combined into an online ecosystem. 

What is clear, however, is that this playbook offers a
tremendous bang for the disinformation buck.  With just a
small amount of money, adversaries use hackers to steal and
weaponize data, trolls to craft disinformation, fake accounts to
build networks, bots to drive traffic, and ads to target new
audiences.  They can force propaganda into the mainstream
and wreak havoc on our online discourse.  That’s a big
return on investment.   

So where do we go from here?

It will take all of us – the platform companies, the United
States government, and the American people – to deal with this
new and evolving threat.

Social media and the innovative tools each of you have
developed have changed our world for the better.  You have
transformed the way we do everything from shopping for groceries
to growing our small businesses.  But Russia’s actions are
further exposing the dark underbelly of the ecosystem you have
created.  And there is no doubt that their successful
campaign will be replicated by other adversaries – both nation
states and terrorists – that wish to do harm to democracies
around the globe.

As such, each of you here today needs to commit more
resources to identifying bad actors and, when possible,
preventing them from abusing our social media
ecosystem. 

Thanks in part to pressure from this Committee, each company
has uncovered some evidence of the ways Russians exploited their
platforms during the 2016 election.

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.  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. 

According to data Facebook has provided, 120 Russian-backed
Pages built a network of over 3.3 million real people.  From
these now-suspended Pages, 80,000 organic unpaid posts reached an
estimated 126 million real people.  That is an astonishing
reach from just one group in St. Petersburg.  And I doubt
that the so-called Internet Research Agency represents the only
Russian trolls out there.  Facebook has more work to do to
see how deep this goes, including looking into the reach of the
IRA-backed Instagram posts, which represent another 120,000
pieces of content.

The anonymity provided by Twitter and the speed by which it
shares news makes it an ideal tool to spread disinformation.
According to one study, during the 2016 campaign, junk news
actually outperformed real news in some battleground states in
the lead-up to Election Day.   Another study found that
bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on
Twitter over the entire presidential
campaign.   

I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly
under-estimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing
disinformation.  Independent researchers have estimated that
up to 15% of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million
accounts – are fake or automated.   Despite evidence of
significant incursion and outreach from researchers, Twitter has,
to date, only uncovered a small percentage of that
activity.  Though, I am pleased to see that number has been
rising in recent weeks.  

Google’s search algorithms continue to have problems in
surfacing fake news or propaganda.  Though we can’t
necessarily attribute to the Russian effort, false stories and
unsubstantiated rumors were elevated on Google Search during the
recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, YouTube has
become RT’s go-to platform.  You have also now uncovered
1100 videos associated with this campaign.  Much more of
your content was likely spread through other
platforms.      

It is not just the platforms that need to do more.  The
U.S. government has thus far proven incapable of adapting to meet
this 21st century challenge.  Unfortunately, I believe this
effort is suffering, in part, because of a lack of leadership at
the top.  We have a President who remains unwilling to
acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy. 
President Trump should stop actively delegitimizing American
journalism and acknowledge and address this real threat posed by
Russian propaganda.

 

Congress, too, must do more.  We need to recognize that
current law was not built to address these threats. I have
partnered with Senators Klobuchar and McCain on a light-touch
legislative approach, which I hope my colleagues with
review.  The Honest Ads Act is a national security bill
intended to protect our elections from foreign influence.

Finally – but perhaps most importantly – the American people
also need to be aware of what is happening on our news feeds. We
all need to take a more discerning approach to what we are
reading and sharing, and who we are connecting with online. We
need to recognize that the person at the other end of that
Facebook or Twitter argument may not be a real person at
all.

The fact is that this Russian weapon has already proven its
success and cost effectiveness.  We can all be assured that
other adversaries, including foreign intelligence operatives and
potentially terrorist organizations, are reading their playbook
and already taking action.  We don’t have the luxury of
waiting for this Committee’s final report before taking action to
respond to this threat to our democracy.

To our witnesses today, I hope you will detail what you saw
in this last election and tell us what steps you will undertake
to get ready for the next one.  We welcome your
participation and encourage your continued commitment to
addressing this shared responsibility.

Chairman Richard Burr also gave an opening statement, welcoming
the general councils from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and
noting that Wednesday’s hearing was a chance for them to “correct
the record,” noting that “my sense is that not all aspects of
those stories have been told accurately.”

 

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