Google to face lawmakers in Russia probe

Google to face lawmakers in Russia probe
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Google will be on the hot seat Tuesday as lawmakers begin a series of hearings examining whether Russian actors used social media and digital ad networks to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Google, Facebook and Twitter are all sending their general counsels to testify on the matter before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

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Google has faced the least public scrutiny of the three companies when it comes to Russia’s election activities.

The company’s executives have said very little on how its platform might have been used by those seeking to meddle in the U.S. election and have not put out public statements.

What information has come out about Google has largely come from leaks to reporters.

Despite the lack of attention on the search giant, experts are skeptical that Russian actors did not use Google and its ad network in the election interference effort.

“To think [foreign actors] somehow didn’t use Google but used all these platforms is ridiculous,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has testified before the Senate on Russian operations.

When asked for comment, Google referred to a post by the company's general counsel, Kent Walker, about the "limited" use of its platforms by Russian actors. 

"Preventing the misuse of our platforms is something that we take very seriously; it’s a major focus for our teams. We’re committed to finding a way to stop this type of abuse, and to working closely with governments, law enforcement, other companies, and leading NGOs to promote electoral integrity and user security, and combat misinformation," Walker wrote.

More attention has been paid to Facebook and Twitter, which have already released information about Russian use of their platforms. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerYang compares U.S. election tampering to Russia's election interference efforts Mark Warner nominates Bryan Cranston to play him in a movie Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservative politicians, pundits MORE (D-Va.) has railed against the two companies and questioned their role in the election.

Both Facebook and Twitter have launched large counter-offensives to show that they’re taking action on the matter. In September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company was taking new steps to increase transparency and mitigate foreign influence on its platform.

Facebook has since addressed issues about transparency and election interference on its “Hard Questions” blog. The company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, also met with top lawmakers during a recent visit to Washington.

Twitter has not publicly involved its top executives in the Russia matter, though the firm’s co-founder and board member Ev Williams spoke to CNN about misinformation on its platform in September.

The company has said it is taking steps to keep foreign actors from manipulating its platform, including instituting new requirements that political ads be clearly labeled.

Twitter and Facebook have already briefed House and Senate Intelligence committee lawmakers and staffers on its findings regarding Russia’s election interference on its platform.

Google also briefed committee officials in a private setting.

While Google doesn’t have a widely used public facing social media platform like Facebook and Twitter, experts and lawmakers are still curious to know how it might have been used. A spokesperson for Warner’s office told The Hill in September that he was interested in whether foreign actors may have purchased ads on Google — which can be targeted to specific search terms — to influence Americans.

Digital media researchers also want to know what Google knows about how Russian actors might have used YouTube to disseminate information.

“Our understanding at the moment right now is that YouTube has been used for Russian propaganda from both sources like Russia Today, but also smaller sources and user-generated content,” said Lisa-Maria Neudert, a digital political communications researcher at Oxford University.

Nuedert said YouTube has taken down content from such smaller sources, making the extent of Russian influence hard to explore, but remnants of the footage still exist on the internet.

A 2015 New York Times Magazine profile of the Internet Research Agency — the Kremlin-linked group that Facebook revealed purchased 3,000 ads on its platform — details how it has used YouTube videos in the past.

In one instance, the Internet Research Agency used YouTube videos to help substantiate a hoax story about a nonexistent chemical plant explosion. The video is still on YouTube and has not been suspended or deleted.

In October, The Daily Beast found that Kremlin-linked actors also used YouTube video bloggers to push pro-Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE messages to black audiences.

“We, the black people, we stand in one unity. We stand in one to say that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE is not our candidate,” says a man in one of the videos.

It’s unclear whether Google and YouTube will release more information about Russia, but lawmakers believe that the hearings will shed new light on how foreign actors have taken advantage of it and its competitors’ platforms.

“I think people will be surprised when they see the breadth of how many Americans got touched by these communications,” Warner told The Hill last Wednesday. “I don’t think the press reports have reported the extent.”

- This story was updated on Oct. 31.