Senators Press Tech Officials Over Missed Signs of Russia Influence

By Byron Tau and Deepa Seetharaman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Senators pressed representatives from three technology giants to explain why they didn't recognize Russia-linked accounts earlier, as the officials struck a contrite tone about the role their services played in stoking political tensions during the 2016 campaign

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Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Twitter Inc. were all summoned in front of a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, where officials told members of Congress that they were actively developing better policies for how to curb foreign activity on their platforms and ensure that foreign governments, terrorists and criminals aren't able to abuse social media for nefarious purposes.

The officials also faced questions about voter-suppression efforts and whether Silicon Valley can or should police speech.

The tech companies emphasized that only a fraction of the total political content that appeared on their platforms had any links to foreign governments, particularly Russia, which the U.S. intelligence community determined in January ran a campaign of hacking and disinformation aimed at influencing the 2016 presidential election. They promised to take more responsibility for policing political content on their platforms in the future.

But the tech giants also disclosed that millions of users saw either paid or free election-related content during and after last year's election across the platforms. Members of Congress peppered tech executives, especially Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, with questions about their policies toward hate speech and terrorism, ad-targeting capabilities and how they manage their role in political discourse in the U.S. as well as in developing countries like Myanmar.

In his written remarks, Mr. Stretch of Facebook described the Russian-created posts and ads as "deeply disturbing -- seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other."

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Several senators appeared irked by the amount of time it took tech companies to detect and disclose the extent of the Russian activity on their platforms. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) noted that there remained many pages on Facebook that appeared similar to those created by the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin group that bought ads on Facebook during a two-year period that included the U.S. election.

Sen. Al Franken (D, Minn.) highlighted that those Russian-backed actors purchased Facebook ads in rubles. "How could you not connect those two dots?" he asked. Mr. Stretch responded: "It's a signal we should have been alert to and in hindsight, one we missed."

Another member, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) called better addressing nefarious activity on social media "the national security challenge of the 21st century."

On Tuesday, the companies promised that they understood their civic responsibilities to ensure that hateful, misleading, false or propagandistic content is better policed. Facebook has 10,000 people working on safety and security and plans to double that figure by the end of 2018, Mr. Stretch said. Twitter for the first time revealed the reach of Russian-linked content, acknowledging that there were about 288 million automated, election-related tweets from accounts tied to Russia between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016.

Facebook in prepared testimony estimated that 126 million people on Facebook saw Russian-backed content from a single pro-Kremlin firm called the Internet Research Agency,

The hearing featured some prominent examples of the Russian-created content, with Sen. Chris Coons (D, Del.) displaying two images of ads run by Facebook pages created by the pro-Kremlin Internet Research Agency.

One was an anti-Hillary Clinton ad from a page called "Heart of Texas", which said she was "despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans." The second ad came from a page "Being Patriotic" for an Oct. 2, 2016 event called "Miners for Trump."

Mr. Stretch said such ads had no place on Facebook and angered Facebook employees. This ad reflected "the sophistication, in my view, of what we're dealing with," Mr. Stretch said. "This is an online attack...and it's also paired with offline activity."

Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked about voter-suppression efforts, pointing to tweets that falsely claimed that people could "vote by text."

Twitter removed the tweets because the company deemed it illegal voter suppression, Twitter's acting general counsel Sean Edgett said.

"It is criminal," Sen. Klobuchar said. "I say it so that people understand why we need to have another kind of law in place to police this conduct."

All three companies found themselves in the hot-seat on Capitol Hill this week after Facebook revealed in September that it had uncovered Russian activity on its platform. Since that disclosure, Twitter and Google have also launched internal audits to uncover the extent of Russian activity on their platforms.

Tuesday's hearing was the first of three high-profile scheduled appearances before Capitol Hill committees probing aspects of Russian activity during the 2016 election. On Wednesday, they are scheduled to appear in back-to-back appearances before the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. The House Intelligence committee is expected to release more examples of Russia-influenced content. Also on Wednesday, Facebook is due to release its latest quarterly earnings report.

In front of the Judiciary committee, Facebook, Google and Twitter all faced tough questions about privacy, potential regulation of ads on their platforms and why it took so long for the companies to uncover the amount of Russian activity on the platform.

Other members expressed concerns about tech companies taking too great a role in policing speech -- raising First Amendment concerns about the control that the tech giants have over the public square.

"The prospect of Silicon Valley companies actively censoring speech or the news content is troubling to anyone who cares about a democratic process with a robust First Amendment," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas.).

All three companies also vowed that they were developing policies to provide better political ad disclosure but expressed hesitation in endorsing new legislation.

In response to questions from Sen. Klobuchar, a sponsor of legislation to require social media companies to register political advertisements purchased on their platforms in a federal database, asked representatives of all three companies if they supported her bill. The proposal calls for regulating digital political advertising media more like the ads that appear on television and radio.

"We certainly support the goals of the legislation and hope to work through the nuances," said Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security.

--Georgia Wells, Michelle Hackman, and Douglas MacMillan contributed to this article.

Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com and Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 31, 2017 18:54 ET (22:54 GMT)