Facebook, Google, and Twitter faced tough questions from US senators on Tuesday over why they failed to stop Russia from exploiting their platforms in last year's election. Facebook, however, faced much of the fire—and its answers didn't sit well with some.
"I hear a lot of Johnny-come-latelys. There's a lot that I think you could have done earlier," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told the panel, which appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism.
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The most heated moment occurred when Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, pressed Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch about why the social network did not flag political ads that were paid for in Russian rubles. "Those are two data points: American political ads and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?" Franken asked.
"It's a signal we should have been alert to. And in hindsight, it's one we missed," Stretch responded.
The hearing—which also included Sean Edgett, Twitter's acting general counsel, and Richard Salgado, director of Law Enforcement and Information Security at Google—was intended to address tech solutions that could stop "Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online." On Monday, all three companies disclosed new data that said Russia used their services to spread online propaganda.
Stretch called the problem a "national security issue." The company currently has 10,000 staffers devoted to safety and security on Facebook. But by 2018, it plans to double that number.
But even as Facebook vowed to crack down on the problem, some US senators said it still wasn't doing enough. "I do know we have to be careful we don't become censors," said Sen. Leahy. However, he's worried that Russian-linked accounts masquerading as legitimate groups continue to persist on the platform.
During the hearing, Leahy displayed a poster that showed various Facebook pages promoting controversial political topics. "When I mention Johnny-come-lately, these [Pages] were [live] today," he said. "Can you tell me with certainty that none of these pages were created by Russian-linked organizations?"
Stretch said Facebook continues to look for fake account activity and abuse.
The company has also announced upcoming measures to make political ads over the platform more transparent, including disclosing to users who paid for what ads.
However, that might not be enough to stop the political ad abuse, noted Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. That's because many of the political ads Russian agents allegedly bought from Facebook focused on hot-button issues like gun rights or immigration, as opposed to advocating for a specific candidate. Indeed, Stretch confirmed that misleading content continued to be posted after election day, much of it aimed at "fomenting discord [over] the validity of [Trump's] election."
Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of the Honest Ads Act, which would require major online services to keep a public file on political ad purchases, which anyone—such as voters and journalists—could access. It would also force tech companies to include disclaimers on each online political ad, identifying who sponsored them.
Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy also was doubtful Facebook could verify the identity of all its 5 million monthly ad buyers. Anyone might be working on behalf of a foreign government. "I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me," he told the firms.