In response to a continuing congressional investigation, major social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google sent representatives to a hearing held on Nov. 1 by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism to defend their role in Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.
Research from cybersecurity firm FireEye indicates Russian operators used social media to manipulate the 2016 presidential election in the United States by spreading anti-Clinton speeches and promoting misleading narratives.
According to a post by Alex Stamos, the Chief Security Officer of Facebook, approximately $100,000 in advertising spending during and after the election was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages.
Google said in a post that 1,108 videos with 43 hours of content were related to the Russian effort on YouTube and $4,700 was spent on Russian search and display ads.
Twitter also identified 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian operatives and more than 36,000 bots that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election.
The heated conversation questioned the ability of the platforms to prevent bad actors from taking advantage of Americans through ads and posts.
“The truth of the matter is you have 5 million advertisers that change every month, every minute, probably every second,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel. He continued, “You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?”
The hearing highlighted the immense power of tech companies. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, expressed his concern about the way social media can be weaponized against people in an NBC interview. “The bigger issue is that some of these tools are used to divide people, to manipulate people, to get fake news to people in broad numbers, and so to influence their thinking.”
Influencing thinking is the most effective Russian mechanism to interfere in U.S. democracy. Lawmakers claimed Moscow did not aim at specific political party, but rather sought to sow and exploit divisions.
“The government of the Russian Federation attempted to weaken the pillars of our democracy and undermine faith and confidence in our society’s most fundamental right — the ability to choose our own leaders,” said Erica Ngoenha, Young Transatlantic Network Member and Program Officer of Congressional Affairs from The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
To stop the spread of misinformation, Facebook has been working closely with fact-checkers like Snopes and Politifact, with the current goal being the creation of a software algorithm to flag suspicious stories. However, lawmakers criticized Facebook’s efforts as inadequate because fake news producers can act as trustworthy institutions to avoid classification.
Twitter banned advertising from all accounts owned by Russia Today and Sputnik, but much of the manipulation on Twitter comes from fake or automated accounts that don’t involve advertising.
Google, the latest tech company to come under fire because of Russian-linked accounts interfering in the U.S. election, removed Russia Today from an ad-sharing arrangement on YouTube to appease lawmakers; nonetheless, Google’s display-advertising business remains under scrutiny.
U.S. law prohibits any foreign country or entity from influencing U.S. election directly or indirectly. Facebook justified its role in the 2016 election by arguing most of the ads focused on divisive social issues rather than favoring certain candidates. If the ads didn’t advocate for a specific candidate, the tech giants didn’t violate the law. However, the congressional panel still found the Russian government manipulated the presidential election by imposing extreme opinions through ads and posts.
To regulate political advertising, the U.S. government has set multiple rules but has yet to catch up with digital platforms. If foreign powers wanted to run campaign ads on U.S. television or radio, the station must disclose the details, including what times and programs the ads ran on, how much was paid, and who paid for it. As of now, the same rules do not apply to digital advertising.