Representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter all said Russia had used their platforms, to varying degrees, to interfere with the 2016 election and all said they needed to do more to prevent such disinformation attacks, which hey also conceded were an attempt to undermine democracy.
That came in a hearing Tuesday (Oct. 31) in the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, the first of three hearings featuring executives from social media giants on the Hill this week. A couple of Democratic senators made the point that there could be no doubting that fact, an obvious message to President Donald Trump, who has consistently dismissed or downplayed Russia's election-meddling role.
Witnesses for the hearing were Colin Stretch, VP and general counsel at Facebook; Sean Edgett, general counsel at Twitter, and Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and Information Security.
There was some unhappiness on both sides of the aisle directed at the companies over their use in the disinformation campaign, over their views about government action in their space, and how long it took them to come forward with the news of the Russian-backed disinformation. Some legislators thought the companies had not done enough to weed out misinformation, others saw it as a troubling potential for discriminating against speech the company might not like.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the witnesses sounded like "johnny come latelys" who could have done more with all their profits to combat the disinformation.
All the execs signaled they had made changes in their ad policies and automated security systems to weed out fake content, though Salgado suggested there had been relatively little Russian-linked activity on Google, in part because the search platform did not lend itself to viral dissemination.
Most of the execs used terms like "keep doing" and "continue to" in reference to their policies to suggest they are already doing a lot, but need to do some more.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) was not assuaged. He pressed Stretch on whether Facebook could actually see behind an ad buy to the shell companies that might want to hide from disclosure. Stretch said no, they could not.
Kennedy asked whether Google thought of itself as a media company or a neutral technology platform, Salgado said primarily the other. Kennedy suggested it was a major news outlet and Salgado agreed it shared information, that could include news, but was not a publisher like a newspaper.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Mich.) pressed the witnesses on whether they supported her Honest Ads bill that would strengthen and clarify online political ad disclosure requirements. They said they supported the goals, stood ready to work with the Congress on the "nuances," were already honoring the spirit of the bill in some of their changes, and other positive things, but stopped short of outright endorsement.
Klobuchar pointed out that those voluntary changes had no outside enforcer, which the bill would provide.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) chairman of the subcommittee, set the tone early, praising his witnesses' companies for all the ways they have enriched America, from a wealth of information at your fingertips, to sharing aspects of our lives, to talking with each other in 140 characters. He added that some do that better than others, and some "should probably do less of it," a criticism that appeared aimed at President Donald Trump, though Graham left it at that.
But the other side was that the platforms could be used undermine democracy and put the nation at risk. The challenge, he said, was to "keep the good and deal with the bad."
One takeaway from the hearing was that, according to the witnesses, Russian-backed disinformation during the campaign was primarily targeted at hot-button issues that could divide the country, and after the election it continued, including by challenging the legitimacy of President Trump's victory.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had concerns about the companies' actively censoring speech in an effort to weed out disinformation and the impact on speech, as did Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Cruz went through a litany of stories about alleged discrimination against conservative political speech by online platforms. He said it was disconcerting if that became the lens through which the public got news.
Stretch said Facebook does not permit hate speech, but does not discriminate on the basis of viewpoint or ideology, but he would not label Facebook a neutral platform. Edgett said allowing the public an open platform is important to debate and discussion.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he was working on a bill with even broader disclosures and not confined to political ads.
An angry Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked how Facebook could somehow not make connection that an electoral ad paid for in rubles were coming from Russia. Those were two data points for a company that connects billions of dots.
Stretch said in hindsight they missed signals and should have had "a sharper lens." Franken asked if Facebook would commit to not accepting political ads paid for by rubles or North Korean money.
Stretch said Facebook would not permit political advertising by foreign actors, but Franken was not mollified.
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.