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 FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children 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 BurrThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks 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 WarnerDemocrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks On The Money: Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds | Trump tells Republicans to walk away | GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden 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 RubioDemocrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden 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 Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada Senate falling behind on infrastructure 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 WydenDemocrats release data showing increase in 'mega-IRA' accounts Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Jan. 6 probe, infrastructure to dominate week 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 SchiffOfficers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work 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 KlobucharOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada Biden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks 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 CornynSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division 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.