Senator clashes with Colin Stretch over how tech giants apparently missed posts coming from Russia: ‘How could you not connect the dots?’
A top executive at Facebook struggled to answer on Tuesday as an angry and incredulous Al Franken, a Democratic senator, demanded to know why the social network accepted political advertisements paid for in Russian roubles during the presidential election.
Colin Stretch, vice-president and general counsel at Facebook, admitted that the network could have done better in tracing the source of its ad funding during testimony to a Senate judiciary subcommittee. It is the first of three congressional hearings focusing on how three tech giants – Facebook, Google and Twitter – were exploited by Russia to sway voters.
“This is something you guys have to deal with and fix,” Franken told Stretch, who was appearing instead of the more recognisable Facebook leaders Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg. “You were kind of the canary in the coal mine in 2016.”
In a devastating line of questioning, Franken asked irately: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points! American political ads and Russian money: roubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”
Stretch said Facebook had done an effective job on cyber-theft but admitted: “I think in hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed and we are now focused–”
But Franken, angry and sardonic, interrupted: “People are buying ads on your platform with roubles. They’re political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear that these platforms do: they’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together roubles with a political ad and go hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?”
Stretch replied: “Senator, it’s a signal we should have been alert to and in hindsight–”
But Franken cut him off, asking whether Facebook would pledge not to publish a political ad paid for in North Korean won. As Stretch demurred, Franken interjected fiercely: “Please answer yes or no, sir. You’re sophisticated. You’re the chief legal counsel for Facebook. Please answer yes or no.”
Stretch sought to clarify that currencies did not necessarily indicate the source country of an advert and refused to commit to banning political ads purchased in foreign currencies. But Franken snapped back, asking why a bad actor would choose the North Korean won to conceal his activities. He told the counsel: “My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better.”
The hearing on Capitol Hill heard how Russia’s attack via social media began in 2015, before the party primaries, and continued even after last November’s presidential election. Stretch said there had been an effort to challenge the validity of Donald Trump’s election, sowing further division.
Facebook, Twitter and Google defended their security measures and promised to do more to stop the misuse of their platforms by a foreign power. Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security at Google, said: “We take this seriously. We’ve made changes and will continue to get better.”
But some senators were sceptical. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont, called the companies “Johnny-come-latelies” and said: “There’s a lot that I think you could have done earlier.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein highlighted fake pages such as “Black Matters US” and “United Muslims of America”, which Russians used a custom audience tool to target. Stretch described such attempts to exploit divisions in society as “vile” and “cynical” and said there have been changes to ad targeting policies with added layers of review.
Senator Chris Coons struck a similar tone to Franken and again Facebook bore the brunt. He drew attention to an advert that claimed Hillary Clinton, along with Barack Obama, was despised by Americans and the army should be withdrawn from her control. Another advertised a non-existent “miners for Trump” rally. People were “duped”, Coons said.
Stretch responded: “That advertisement has no place on Facebook and we are committed to preventing that sort of behaviour happening again on our platform. You’re right to surface it. It makes me angry, it makes everyone angry.”
But Coons said he was “concerned” that it had taken Facebook 11 months since the election to come forward and address the issue. Stretch disputed this, noting the company had published a white paper in April.
In written testimony to the committee, Facebook said it estimated roughly 29 million people were served content in their news feeds directly from Russia’s Internet Research Agency’s (IRA) 80,000 posts over two years. “Posts from these pages were also shared, liked, and followed by people on Facebook, and, as a result, three times more people may have been exposed to a story that originated from the Russian operation.”
The company said its best estimate was that about 126 million people may have been served content from a page associated with the IRA at some point during the two-year period. This equals about 0.004% of content in news feed, or about one out of 23,000 pieces of content. Stretch testified that many of those users may never have seen the material.
These “organic” posts are separate from more than 3,000 ads linked to the agency that Facebook has already turned over to congressional committees. Many of the ads focused on divisive social issues.
Twitter told the same subcommittee that it had found and shut down 2,752 accounts linked to Russia’s IRA, which is notorious for pro-Russian government positions.
On Twitter, the Russia-linked accounts put out 1.4m election-related tweets from September through 14 November last year – nearly half of them automated. The company also found nine Russian accounts that bought ads, most of which came from the state-backed news service RT, previously known as Russia Today. Twitter said last week it would no longer accept ads from RT and Sputnik, another state-sponsored news outlet.
Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, said: “The investigation continues and we expect to keep the committee up to date on any future discoveries.” The other companies also said the investigations continued.
Twitter’s general counsel claimed that the company could “draw lines” between organic tweets and advertisements. But Senator Richard Durbin objected: “When it comes to drawing those lines, it’s a challenge for us, and we do it for a living. I think it’s going to be very hard for you, too.”
Google said two accounts linked to the Russian group spent $4,700 on ads on its platforms during the 2016 election. The company also found 18 YouTube channels probably backed by Russian agents. Those channels hosted 1,108 videos with 43 hours of material, although they racked up just 309,000 views in the US between June 2015 and November 2016, Google said.
The Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar asked the companies whether they would support the “honest ads” bill she has introduced with Senator Mark Warner, which would bring political ad rules from TV, radio and print to the internet.
Each of the tech giants offered qualified support rather than answering yes. Stretch said: “We stand ready to work with you and your co-sponsors on that legislation going forward.”
Edgett of Twitter added: “The same goes for Twitter.”
Salgado of Google said carefully: “We certainly support the goals of the legislation and would like to work through the nuances to make it work for all of us.”
The committee chair, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, quoted Donald Trump as saying that he had won the election based on Twitter. Graham warned that the social media platforms were being used by people who “wish us harm and wish to undercut our way of life”.
The Republican senator John Kennedy said he was proud of the American companies but added: “I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me. You’ve got 5m advertisers and you’re going to tell me you’re going to be able to tell me the origin of all those advertisers? I’m trying to get us down from la-la land.”
All three companies will also testify Wednesday before the House and Senate intelligence committees as part of congressional investigations of Russian election interference.