Google Conducting Broad Internal Investigation on Russian Influence -- Update

By Jack Nicas and Robert McMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

Google is conducting a broad internal investigation to determine whether Russian-linked entities used its ads or services to try to manipulate voters ahead of the U.S. election, according to a person familiar with the matter, a move that comes after Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. said Russian actors used their sites.

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Google, part of Alphabet Inc., is also talking with congressional officials who are investigating Russian efforts to influence the election, and plans to share its findings with them once completed, this person said.

Congressional leaders have scrutinized Facebook and Twitter this month for Russian activity on their sites -- and criticized the tech companies for their lack of disclosure of such information.

Google, pending a potential meeting with lawmakers, has said little. The company earlier this month said that it found no evidence that it sold election-related ads to Russian actors. But it didn't say how deeply it was investigating the issue, or whether there was other types of Russian interference on its platform.

It also hasn't said whether it will accept an invitation this week from the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify publicly on Nov. 1 about Russian interference on their platforms. The committee also invited Facebook and Twitter to that hearing. Facebook and Twitter haven't said if they have accepted the invitation.

It is unclear what sort of activity, if any, happened on Google's sites. But Google runs the world's largest advertising business and largest online-video site, YouTube, making it an obvious place for investigators to look.

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Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian influence on the election, said that lawmakers want to speak to Google "given their dominant force online that has an advertising component."

Google sells ads above its search results, before YouTube videos and on third-party websites and apps. Google even offers a specific ad tool for political campaigns that it says will help advertisers "win the moments that win elections."

Google's YouTube site is also one of the world's largest social-media communities, with more than 1.5 billion monthly users, compared with more than 2 billion on Facebook and 328 million on Twitter.

The site is also a hotbed for highly partisan political videos, including misleading and false content. And it is a primary way Russian media with direct links to the Russian government reach viewers, particularly in the Western world.

Russian state media RT, which a U.S. intelligence report said aimed to meddle in the election, has 2.2 million subscribers and 2.1 billion views on its English-language YouTube channel. The organization says it has more than 5 billion views across its YouTube channels, making it the site's most watched news network.

Twitter on Thursday singled out RT as an advertiser that was part of Russian interference on its site. RT spent $274,100 to advertise on Twitter during the campaign, the company said.

An RT spokeswoman couldn't immediately be reached Friday afternoon, but in a note sent earlier in the day, RT's editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan said RT had been "spending money on our advertising campaigns, just like every media organization in the world."

The Russian broadcaster has previously disputed the U.S. intelligence report.

Facebook said earlier this month that Russian entities paid $150,000 to run 5,200 divisive ads on its platform during the campaign. It identified roughly 450 Russian-linked accounts as having purchased ads -- a list that it shared with Twitter and Google, according to people familiar with the matter.

Twitter said Thursday that it found 201 accounts on its service linked to the Russian actors identified by Facebook.

Google's investigation, however, is much broader than the Facebook list, according to one of the people.

While outside researchers were able to get a picture of abuse on Facebook and Twitter by examining the likes, retweets and shares on those platforms, Google's search-based business model makes it more difficult for outside parties to identify such activity, said Graham Brookie, deputy director with Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Given the sophistication of the Russian campaigns, Mr. Brookie said it is likely Google will uncover something. "If you're running a messaging campaign that is as sophisticated as micro-targeting demographics on Facebook, then there's no way you're going to sit there from a communication standpoint and say 'Google doesn't matter to us,'" he said.

The Russians "looked at a toolkit in a lot of the same ways that a political campaign would look at a toolkit," Mr. Brookie said. "And the sophistication with which they used their toolkit was very similar to a lot of political campaigns in the U.S. Every single political campaign in the U.S. would not ignore Google."

--Byron Tau contributed to this article

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com and Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 29, 2017 19:19 ET (23:19 GMT)