Twitter Says It Found 201 Russia-Linked Accounts That Aimed to Influence U.S. Election -- 2nd Update

By Georgia Wells, Byron Tau and Robert McMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

Twitter Inc. on Thursday offered its first public information on Russian use of its platform during the U.S. presidential election, but its limited disclosure only fueled criticism from lawmakers who are pushing for greater transparency from internet companies over how their platforms are manipulated.

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In presentations to congressional investigators and a post on its site, Twitter said it found 201 accounts on its service linked to Russian actors that Facebook Inc. recently identified as having run ads meant to sow political and social division. In addition, Twitter said the Russian-backed news site RT, which a U.S. intelligence report said aimed to meddle in the election, bought $274,100 of ads on Twitter last year. That compared with $152,000 that Facebook said Russian actors spent on its site.

But Twitter's comments left unclear the extent of the problem, including how many accounts attempted to spread misinformation or violated Twitter's rules, and how users interacted with those tweets.

Twitter in its statement identified only accounts that corresponded to the roughly 450 Russian-linked accounts that Facebook had identified as purchasing $150,000 in ads to provoke political tension.

Twitter said it found 22 accounts with corresponding Facebook accounts that Facebook said had Russian links, and another 179 with ties to those accounts. The company said it suspended some of those accounts for violating its rules. It also suspended bots that spread misleading information about voting, such as ones that said Americans could "text-to-vote."

Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the meeting with Twitter was "deeply disappointing" and added the company had not done enough to examine the extent of Russian activity on its platform.

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Mr. Warner, who has long pushed for a deeper examination of Russian activity in online communities, criticized Twitter for only analyzing accounts derivative of Facebook accounts. That showed "an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to the democratic institutions and again begs many more questions than they offer," he said.

A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment directly on Mr. Warner's remarks.

Congressional leaders, probing how Russians sought to manipulate public opinion during the election on Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet Inc.'s Google, have called on the companies to disclose their findings in public and private meetings. Twitter met with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees behind closed doors Thursday for several hours for the first time on the topic of foreign interference. Both panels are conducting probes of Russian activity during the election. Russia has denied interfering in the election.

Twitter's announcement is likely to further heighten tensions between technology companies and regulators for how their platforms are used to spread misinformation and affect the democratic process, in ways that the companies struggle to grasp.

"With hundreds of millions of Tweets globally every day, scaling these efforts continues to be a challenge," Twitter said in a statement Thursday.

Facebook said earlier this month that it identified 5,200 Russian-backed ads. In July, the company said it had no evidence that Russian entities bought ads targeted at Americans on the platform during the election season.

"I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That's not what I stand for," Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement last week.

Last week, Facebook said it was sharing more data with other tech companies related to attempts to interfere with elections. "It's almost certain that any actor trying to misuse Facebook will also be trying to abuse other internet platforms too," Mr. Zuckerberg said in his statement.

Congressional investigators said Twitter appeared to be having more difficulty in tracking activity on its platform, given that it allows users anonymity and pseudonymity -- unlike Facebook, which has a policy requiring that users operate under their legal names. People close to Twitter say the company is months behind Facebook in determining the scope of nefarious bot activity on its social network.

"I think there are challenges for Twitter in its forensic investigation because Twitter users don't provide the same background information that Facebook users do," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "And at the same time, I don't think we have more than scratched the surface in our understanding of how the Russians may have used that platform."

The manipulation of Twitter by bots, automated accounts that can be programmed to pump up chosen topics, is widespread, researchers say.

Emilio Ferrara, a assistant research professor in computer science at the University of Southern California, said that bots on Twitter were an important part of the election discussion. "Twenty percent of the tweets that people saw during the one month leading up to the election -- those were generated by bots," he said.

Twitter said in its statement the company estimates that false or spam accounts represent less than 5% of its monthly users.

Following Facebook's lead last week, Twitter pledged to review its political advertising disclosure policy. Social-media companies aren't held to the same standards of public disclosure of political ads as other media platforms, such as television and radio.

In addition, Twitter said it plans to toughen its approach to spam and suspicious activity.

"We will continue to strengthen Twitter against attempted manipulation, including malicious automated accounts and spam," Twitter said.

Write to Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com, Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com and Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 28, 2017 20:05 ET (00:05 GMT)