Senators demand more action from tech firms on Russian election meddling

Senators demand more action from tech firms on Russian election meddling
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Members from both sides of the aisle on the Senate Intelligence Committee took turns Wednesday ripping top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google over how their firms have responded to Russian actors using their platform to attempt to influence the 2016 presidential race.

During a hearing probing Russian election meddling, Republicans and Democrats spared the firms’ general counsels much of the praise that the Senate Judiciary Committee gave them during a hearing the previous day.

Senate Intelligence Committee members instead interrogated the companies over their past and current efforts to curb Russian manipulation of their platforms, frequently expressing displeasure with the answers they received.

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“I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions and I got vague answers,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping GOP senator wants Violence Against Women Act passage by year end MORE (D-Calif.), who sits on both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

The Silicon Valley firms frustrated lawmakers further by making few concrete promises beyond what they’ve already publicly committed to doing, with additional unspecified commitments to do better.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrMcConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Bipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy MORE (R-N.C.) expressed his disappointment with the tech firms' answers as well, but he also targeted media coverage of how Russian actors attempted to sway Americans, pushing back on any narrative that the social media campaign led to President Trump's election.

“A lot of folks, including many in the media, have tried to reduce this entire conversation down to one premise: Foreign actors conducted a surgically executed covert operation to help elect a United States president,” Burr said. “I’m here to tell you this story does not simplify that easily.”

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator Hillicon Valley: Commerce extends Huawei waiver | Senate Dems unveil privacy bill priorities | House funding measure extends surveillance program | Trump to tour Apple factory | GOP bill would restrict US data going to China Klobuchar unveils plan to secure elections as president MORE (Va.), also said that he was irritated by how tech firms had responded to the committee’s concerns.

“I hear all your words, but I have more than a little bit of frustration that many of us on this committee have been raising this issue since the beginning of this year and our claims were frankly blown off by the leaderships of your company. [They said] ‘there’s nothing to see here.’ It bothers me, if you’re committed to working with us on this,” Warner said, basing his impressions on initial briefings the firms gave the Senate Intelligence Committee at the beginning of the summer.

“Candidly, your first presentations were less than sufficient and showed in my mind a lack of resources, a lack of commitment and a lack of genuine effort,” he continued. “The idea that you had no idea of any of this happening strains my credibility.”

Republicans like Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters MORE (Fla.) argued that Russian misinformation was intended to create general division between segments of the U.S. population.

“These operations, they’re not limited to 2016 and not limited to the presidential race, and they continue to this day. They are much more widespread than one election,” Rubio said.

During the hearing, both Warner and Burr also revealed new examples of efforts on Facebook carried out by the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm” that has created and disseminated digital content with the intent to misinform Americans.

Burr and Warner both showed different examples of how Russian actors used Facebook to manipulate Americans.

Warner explained how users can get lured to a page like “Army of Jesus” by encouraging users to like the page if they “want Jesus to win.”

Burr showed what Russian actors did once they had used such campaigns to grow their audiences, displaying screenshots during the hearing of two pages that had been revealed to have been created and run by the Internet Research Agency: “I Heart Texas” and “United Muslims of America.”

The GOP chairman explained that Russians organized a Heart of Texas rally and a concurrent United Muslims of America counterprotest on the same day at the same location in Houston.

“Facebook enabled that event to happen, and I would say Facebook has failed their goal,” Burr said.

Lawmakers also took shots at the companies for bringing their lawyers to testify on their behalf instead of senior executives.

“I’m disappointed that you’re here but not your CEOs. We would appreciate seeing the top people actually making the decisions,” said Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing MORE (I-Maine).

Tech firms tried to draw attention to work that they were doing to improve and crack down on malicious foreign actors but were shot down in many cases by lawmakers who called their work too vague.

“It is self-evident that in the past election you failed,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Democrats raise privacy concerns over Amazon home security system Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny MORE (D-Ore.). “You need to stop paying lip service to bad actors shutting down these accounts.”

When asked by lawmakers if they felt like they had done enough to curb foreign influence on their platforms, the companies said that they hadn’t.

“That was an absolute miss,” Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett conceded when pressed on how Twitter handled @TEN_GOP, a high-profile Russian Twitter account that posed as the Tennessee Republican Party and duped Republicans.

Even though they largely withheld details, the companies did provide some new insight into their operations. Twitter revealed for the first time that it had banned 106 accounts for creating more than 700 “vote-by-text” tweets which intended to mislead voters into believing that they could cast their votes by texting a number.

Facebook also disclosed that an additional 20 million people had potentially seen content from Russian actors on its platform around the time of the election, from its previous 126 million estimate.

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch noted during the House Intelligence Committee hearing later on Wednesday that the Russian content and ads Facebook has reviewed so far did not target the same groups as Trump campaign ads. Groups suspicious about alleged links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government saw this as a potential indicator of collusion.

The social media behemoth additionally revealed that the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent $81 million on ads during the campaign.

At the House Intelligence Committee hearing, the firms agreed to release further information as well. Twitter and Google told the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffNunes's facial expression right before lawmakers took break from Sondland testimony goes viral Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep Maloney wins House Oversight gavel MORE (Calif.), that they wouldn’t be opposed to the committee publicly releasing ads from Russian actors on their platform. Earlier in its hearing, the panel made public Russian ads bought on Facebook.

Intelligence Committee members also took advantage of the firms' presence to push them on their opinions of the Honest Ads Act, new legislation spearheaded by Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Minn.) and Warner, that would regulate political ads on digital platform in the same way as on TV and radio.

Representatives for the firms said they supported the sentiment of the legislation, but they did not say that they would support the bill in its current form.

“So you believe that, you believe from a legal standpoint that you should be treated differently from newspapers, cable TV show or radio?” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynTensions rise in Senate's legislative 'graveyard' Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping Senate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Texas) asked.

“Yes, we're not producing the content,” Edgett responded.

“That may well be a distinction lost on most of us,” Cornyn responded.

Lawmakers have warned of new regulations should tech firms not crack down on nefarious content.

“You created these platforms, and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it, or we will,” Feinstein said. “We are not going to go away, gentlemen.”

Updated at 5:12 p.m.