Tech giants in hot seat over election meddling

Tech giants in hot seat over election meddling

Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared on Capitol Hill for the first time on Tuesday to publicly acknowledge their role in Russia's influence on the presidential campaign but offered little more than promises to do better. Their reluctance frustrated lawmakers who sought stronger evidence that US elections would be protected from foreign powers.

The hearing, the first of three in two days for company executives, served as an initial public reckoning for the internet giants. They had emphasised their role as public squares for political discourse but are being forced to confront how they were used as tools for a broad Russian misinformation campaign.

Both Democrats and some Republicans on a Senate Judiciary subcommittee complained that the companies had waited nearly a year to publicly admit how many Americans were exposed to the Russian effort to spread propaganda during the 2016 campaign. Senators pushed for harsher remedies, including regulations on their advertising practices akin to rules for political advertising on television.

"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 legislative way to address it?" asked Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

The most pointed exchanges were aimed at Facebook, which acknowledged on Monday before the hearings that more than 126 million users potentially saw inflammatory political ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency. Facebook has drawn particular ire from lawmakers for its early brushoff of fake news and foreign interference on its site, which its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, dismissed as a "crazy idea" just after the election.

Since then, the company has scrambled to appease lawmakers by promising to hire more than 1,000 people to manually review political ad purchases and to make public the funding behind those ads. "The foreign interference we saw was reprehensible," Colin Stretch, Facebook's general counsel, told senators.

The companies also acknowledged they were struggling to keep up with the threat of foreign interference. "The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us - and one that we are determined to meet," Twitter's acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, said.

At the heart of the companies' problems are business models that reward viral content - which can include misinformation - and an enormous advertising business that is automated and unable to easily spot ads purchased by foreign governments.

In a sign of the shifting political winds for tech giants, Republicans, who have been more restrained in their criticism of the companies, were more sceptical on Tuesday. In one contentious exchange, Republican Senator John Kennedy, pressed Stretch on whether Facebook could possibly police all of its advertisers.

"I'm trying to get us down from La-La Land here," Kennedy said. "The truth of the matter is, you have 5 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?" Stretch acknowledged that Facebook could not track all those advertisers.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the crime and terrorism subcommittee that held the hearing, said the risk went beyond Russia to other US adversaries. Talking to reporters afterwards, he alluded to potential regulation of political advertising online.

"It's Russia today; it could be Iran and North Korea tomorrow," Graham said. "What we need
to do is sit down and find ways to bring some of the controls we have on an over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer."

Facebook, Twitter and Google have not publicly opposed a bipartisan proposal to require reports on who funds political ads online, similar to rules for broadcast television. In private, their lobbyists have praised voluntary efforts to disclose political ad funding and have resisted many aspects of the bill.

Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, said the legislation was essential before the midterm
elections in 2018. "Our midterms are 370 days away, and we don't have time to mess around with dialogue anymore," Klobuchar said in an interview after the hearing. Klobuchar introduced the bill with Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator John McCain.

During the hearing, some Republicans also sought to play down the Russian effort to tip the election in favour of President Donald Trump, stressing incorrectly that the Kremlin's agents did not favour a particular presidential candidate in last year's election.

"Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States," said Republican Senator Charles E Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "Their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy."

That assertion was at odds with the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that President Vladimir Putin of Russia tried to sway the election in favour of Trump, going beyond just posting disruptive content on social media. Russian operatives also hacked Democratic email accounts and released messages embarrassing to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

No concrete plan

Although the companies promised to work with government officials, Stretch stopped short of agreeing to some suggestions.

In one heated exchange, Democratic Senator Al Franken asked him to reject political ad purchases in foreign currencies.

"How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them in the personal connections with its user, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?" Franken said.

But Stretch hemmed, saying the rejection of a foreign currency to buy political ads would not solve the problem of foreign interference. "The reason I'm hesitating on foreign currency is it's relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies," he said. "So it's a signal, but not enough."

This week, the companies admitted that the abuse of their platforms was much greater than previously acknowledged. In addition to Facebook's admission, Google said that agents who were also from the Internet Research Agency had uploaded more than 1,000 videos on its YouTube platform. Twitter said the agency had published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter.

On Wednesday, the top lawyers for all three companies will appear before the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are conducting their own investigations into the Russian election meddling.

Tuesday's hearing exposed a much deeper struggle for Facebook, which is trying to tread a delicate line as a technology platform while also fighting against hate speech, violence and misinformation on its site.

"I like that they are contrite, but these issues are existential and they aren't taking any structural changes," said Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University. "These are Band-Aids."

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