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Twitter briefs Congress on Russian-linked accounts

Twitter briefs Congress on Russian-linked accounts
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Representatives from Twitter on Thursday briefed staff from both the House and Senate Intelligence Committee on how Russian trolls and bots may have used the platform to influence the 2016 election.

Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president of public policy, led a group of four officials who trekked tight-lipped from one side of the Capitol to the other. The briefings took place behind closed doors and the officials after each left quietly through a back door, evading the press.

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Twitter briefed investigators on the findings of an internal review into disinformation networks on its site — an issue that took on a new urgency after Facebook said roughly 470 Russian-linked accounts had purchased thousands of advertisements on its site, some of which were designed to inflame social tensions.

According to a public report issued Thursday afternoon, 22 of the accounts identified by Facebook had corresponding accounts on Twitter.

The company also said that it had identified another 179 related or linked accounts. Twitter “took action on the ones we found in violation of our rules.”

Twitter also provided committee staff with about $275,000 worth of ads bought by the Russian state media arm, RT, and targeted to the U.S. market in 2016. The campaigns were directed at followers of mainstream media and primarily promoted RT tweets related to news stories, according to the report.

But the briefing did little to satisfy at least one key lawmaker. The top Democrat on the Senate panel, Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBiden signs executive order to improve federal cybersecurity Overnight Defense: Former Pentagon chief to testify about Capitol riot Wednesday | Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move Wyden: Funding infrastructure with gas tax hike a 'big mistake' MORE (D-Va.), called the presentation “deeply disappointing” and “frankly inadequate on almost every level.”

“The notion that their work was basically derivative, based upon accounts that Facebook had identified, showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is — the threat it poses to democratic institutions,” he told reporters late Thursday afternoon.

The ranking member of the House panel, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Lone wolf actors post greatest domestic terror threat, FBI, DHS conclude State calls for Azerbaijan to pull back forces from Armenia border MORE (D-Calif.), was less harsh than his counterpart in the upper chamber — but still said Twitter “has significant forensic work to do to understand the depth and breadth of Russian activity during the campaign.”

“This additional analysis will require a far more robust investigation into how Russian actors used their platform as a part of their active measures campaign and whether any of the targeting on Twitter suggests the possibility of assistance or collusion with any U.S. persons,” he said in a statement.

Both committees are pushing for Twitter — along with Facebook and Google — to appear in public hearings on the issue.

The Senate panel has issued invitations to all three for an open hearing on Nov. 1, but it’s not yet clear who will attend. Warner said Thursday that he was considering issuing a subpoena to Twitter.

The House panel has also signaled its intention to hold an open hearing on the matter in October.

Warner is also spearheading efforts to create legislation requiring online outlets to reveal who is purchasing political ads, mirroring rules governing radio and television ads.

His panel has not yet received the 3,000 ads identified by Facebook to have been backed by Russia, but Warner said Thursday he expects them to be delivered either Friday or Monday.

Twitter has for years struggled to reign in the use of fake accounts on its platform. Unlike Facebook, the microblogging platform does not require users to provide their real name — and allows automated accounts, arguing it is a useful tool for customer service accounts.

Intelligence officials have described how Moscow leveraged armies of Twitter bots to spread “fake news” using accounts that were disguised to look like everyday Americans. 

"You can create more personas in Twitter, which makes it look like there are more people than there really are," former FBI agent Clint Watts told the Senate panel in April.

"It's a Potemkin village strategy essentially that amplifies your appearance. So what they do is they launch those simultaneously as they begin the engagement or push of false new stories usually from RT and Sputnik news."

Lawmakers have warned that those efforts didn't stop on Nov. 8.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordTop border officials defend Biden policies Rubio and bipartisan group of senators push to make daylight saving time permanent Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session MORE (R-Okla.), who sits on the intel panel, said Wednesday that Russian trolls have taken advantage of the spat between President Trump and NFL players who protest during the national anthem, pushing hashtags like “#TakeAKnee” and “#BoycottNFL."

“They were taking both sides of the argument this past weekend and pushing them out from their troll farms as much as they could to try to just raise the noise level in America and to make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue as they’re trying to push divisiveness in the country,” he said during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Warner echoed his warnings on Thursday. 

"These tools are being used real time to try to sow discontent in our country, to divide our country on ideological, on racial, on demographic grounds," he said.