Facebook: 126 million people could have seen Russian election content

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Facebook and Twitter will reveal new details on the extent of Russian influence on their platforms, according to sources familiar with their upcoming congressional testimonies.

Google also shed light on their internal investigation into the matter, detailed in a post by its general counsel, Kent Walker.

Facebook will say that as many as 126 million people may have seen content posted by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency when it offers testimony on Tuesday about Russia’s influence on its platform during the 2016 campaign.

Twitter will reveal new details about the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election on its platform, including that it has found 2,700 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, according to a source familiar with its forthcoming congressional testimony.

{mosads}The opening remarks from Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, obtained by The Hill, illustrates the universe of people who might have seen the “organic content” — posts that Russian agents did not pay for — that the Russian group posted in a two-year span from 2015 to 2017.

The company believes that as many 11.4 million people saw ads purchased by the group on its platform, 1.4 million more than it originally reported.

Stretch’s testimony will also reveal that before the 2016 election Facebook “detected and mitigated threats from actors with ties to Russia” and reported them to U.S. authorities.

The activity didn’t focus on hoax stories and misinformation campaigns but instead attacks on U.S. government officials’ Facebook accounts and attempts to spread stolen information through Facebook. This included activity from the group APT28, also referred to as Fancy Bear, which the government has linked to Russian military intelligence.

This led to Facebook booting DC Leaks from its site in the summer, after it found that the page was leaking stolen information to journalists.

Stretch’s testimony reveals that Facebook did not begin to understand how its ad platform was being manipulated until press reports and statements from congressional lawmakers shed light on the matter.

The company promptly began its own investigation, which led it to discover the Internet Research Agency’s $100,000 purchase of 3,000 ads. Facebook also found 120 pages created by the group to disseminate its ads and posts. The company had previously said it found 470 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency.

“Many of the ads and posts we’ve seen so far are deeply disturbing — seemingly intended to amplify societal divisions and pit groups of people against each other,” the testimony reads.

In one portion of the testimony, Stretch downplayed the volume of the posts, saying they only make up 0.004 percent of the content in Facebook’s newsfeed but qualified that “any amount is too much.”

The testimony from Facebook also says that the discoveries have helped it build new machine learning tools to detect and ban malicious actors. The company has also been working with Twitter and Google to tackle the matter.

A source familiar with the hearings says Stretch’s remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee will include more details on Facebook’s counterterrorism efforts

The 2,700 accounts that Twitter now says were linked to the Russian group is a large increase from the original 201 accounts it identified after briefing House and Senate Intelligence panel officials in September.

Twitter’s analysis focused on a much more narrow timeframe than Facebook’s.

According to details to be included in Twitter general counsel Sam Edgett’s testimony, the company’s investigation focuses on 189 million political tweets between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016, compared to Facebook’s two-year span.

Russian-linked, automated accounts made up 0.74 percent of the overall election-related tweets on Twitter in the two-month timeframe, which comes out to roughly 1.4 million tweets, according to the testimony. Those tweets generated 288 million impressions.  

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), had previously blasted Twitter’s original statements to the panel, calling them “deeply disappointing.”

Warner complained that Twitter’s information was derivative of Facebook’s investigation on the matter, and he said he wanted more details beyond accounts and posts tied to what Facebook found on its platform.

Details released by Google on Monday show a smaller amount of influence, compared to Twitter and Facebook.

Google’s Walker said in a blog post on Monday that the company found only “limited” use of its platforms by Russian actors. Two accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency had purchased $4,700 worth of search-engine ads that were not aimed at swaying specific groups of users.

Google also found 1,108 YouTube videos uploaded by 18 video channels on the site suspected of ties to the Kremlin. According to the company, the videos generally had low viewer counts, with only 3 percent registering more than 5,000 views. All of the YouTube accounts that were identified have been suspended. 

The disclosures come in advance of a packed schedule of congressional hearings probing Russian use of the companies’ platforms.

On Tuesday, general counsels from each of the three companies will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The following day, the three will testify in back-to-back hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence committees.

Even with the new information, lawmakers will still have questions.

Speaking with The Hill on Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), said he would like to understand “what kind of forensic investigation” the companies have done as well as “why it took them as long as it did to uncover Russian advertising on their platform.”

Warner will also likely press the companies further in the Senate hearing.

“We want a picture of what actually happened in 2016. I think there’s more than what we have seen,” Warner told The Hill last Wednesday. “I want the American public to know that this didn’t end in 2016. This is an ongoing threat.”

—Harper Neidig contributed. Updated at 8:19 p.m.

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