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Senate’s unfulfilled social media grilling

Attorneys for technology giants Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared on Capitol Hill for the second day in a row yesterday, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee about their efforts to prevent Russian meddling in American politics. The same firms answered questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Here are four takeaways:

• Facebook, Twitter and Google agree that they could have done better in 2016

The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?

Senator Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Oregon, demanded a yes-no answer to the following question from representatives of all three companies: “Are you satisfied with your platform's response to foreign interference in the 2016 election?”

Google general counsel Kent Walker tried to dodge, at first. “We are constantly doing better,” he replied. Pressed by Wyden, he said: “We could have done more.”

Wyden said: “I'll take that as a no.”

Twitter's acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, was more direct. “No, we need to do more,” he answered.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said: “The same is true.”

Recall that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg initially bristled at the suggestion that fake news on his platform could have influenced the presidential race. An admission that the network failed to adequately police content is no small thing.

Edgett got specific about one of Twitter's shortcomings when he said that “when we approached Russia Today, last year, to talk about our advertising products and to sell them our advertising services, they were approached as a regular news organisation, like the BBC or an NPR.”

Senator Tom Cotton, the Republican from Arkansas, asked: “Do you consider RT to be a regular media organisation?” .

Edgett replied: “Obviously, not now.”

Twitter announced last week that it would ban advertising by RT and Sputnik, “based on the retrospective work we've been doing around the 2016 US election and the US intelligence community's conclusion that both RT and Sputnik attempted to interfere with the election on behalf of the Russian Government.”

• Some senators are not convinced that the companies are doing enough now

Cotton criticised Twitter for what he views as insufficient information-sharing with the CIA.

“We're not offering our service for surveillance to any government,” Edgett said.

Cotton replied: “I hope that Twitter will reconsider its policies, when it's dealing with friendly intelligence services in countries like the United States and the UK, as opposed to adversarial countries like Russia and China.”

Senator Marco Rubio, the Republican from Florida, asked Stretch about Facebook's sophisticated filters, which allow it to block certain kinds of content from users in certain parts of the world, to comply with the laws of various countries. Rubio's premise was that if Facebook can do that, it ought to be able to filter out foreign propaganda, too.

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat from Rhode Island, suggested that Facebook, Twitter and Google ought to come up with a way to correct false information spread on their platforms — something akin to the corrections routinely made by news outlets. He received no firm commitments.

“The technical challenges associated with that undertaking are substantial,” Stretch said of Facebook.

Twitter's Edgett said: “We will definitely take that idea back to explore how we could implement a process like that.”

Google's Walker said: “We, too, will take it under consideration.”

• Some of the tech firms' answers left senators frustrated and unsatisfied

On several occasions, committee members ripped the tech companies' lawyers for being unable to answer questions in detail or at all.

Senator Mark R. Warner, Democrat from Virginia and the committee's vice-chairman, asked Stretch if 30,000 accounts that Facebook disabled for meddling in the French presidential election had been active in the United States, too.

“I will have to come back to you on that, senator,” Stretch answered.

Warner replied: “Sir, we've had this hearing scheduled for months. I find your answer very, very disappointing.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California, who also participated in the meeting of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, added: “I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers, and that just won't do.”

Senator Kamala D. Harris, another Democrat from California, asked each company how much money it had made on legitimate advertisements placed on bogus content. All three attorneys said their firms had not conducted such analyses.

“I find that difficult to understand because it would seem to me that we would figure out how much you've profited from Russian propaganda on your platforms,” Harris said.

Senator Angus King, an Independent from Maine, voiced his displeasure with the companies' decisions to send lawyers to the hearing, instead of chief executives.

“I'm disappointed that you're here and not your CEOs,” King said, “because we're talking about policies and policies of the companies. ... If we go through this exercise again, we would appreciate seeing the top people who are actually making the decision.”

• The committee's Republican chairman claims the media are blowing Russian meddling out of proportion

Senator Richard Burr from North Carolina said he takes Russia's effort to meddle in US politics, through social media, very seriously.

“A foreign power using that platform to influence how Americans see and think about one another is as much a public policy issue as it is a national security concern,” Burr said in opening remarks.

Yet the chairman also delivered a lengthy critique of the media, who, in his telling, have “tried to reduce this entire conversation to one premise: foreign actors conducted a surgically executed, covert operation to help elect a United States president. I'm here to tell you this story does not simplify that easily. It is shortsighted and dangerous to selectively focus on one piece of information and think that somehow tells the whole story.”

He went on: “We can look at the divisive content of the ads and the pages that they directed people towards, and the number of tweets and retweets, and the manipulated search results, and draw inferences about the intent of the information operation. What we cannot do, however, is calculate the impact that foreign meddling in social media had on this election, nor can we assume that it must be the explanation for an election outcome that many didn't expect.”

Burr seemed determined at the outset of the hearing yesterday to defend the legitimacy of Donald Trump's election win.

Callum Borchers covers the intersection of politics and media for The Washington Post

Under fire: attorneys for technology giants Facebook, Twitter and Google discuss online Russian adverts during the US election at a House Intelligence Committee hearing (Photograph by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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Published November 02, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated November 02, 2017 at 7:38 am)

Senate’s unfulfilled social media grilling

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