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Five takeaways from the social media hearings

Five takeaways from the social media hearings
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Top officials from Twitter, Facebook and Google traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to testify before three different congressional committees on how Russian actors used their platforms to influence Americans during the 2016 presidential race.

Lawmakers grilled the tech giants' representatives on the specifics of what steps they’re taking to stop foreign actors from manipulating their platforms in the future.

Here are five takeaways from the Silicon Valley firms’ two days of congressional committee hearings.

The Russian accounts pushed content that exploited hot-button issues

The House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday released a snapshot of the content posted by the fake Russian accounts.

As has been previously reported, the ads were largely targeted at pushing both sides of hot-button issues like police brutality, Islamophobia and immigration. But they also included ads attacking both Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE and President Trump.

“We call for disqualification and removal of Hillary Clinton from the presidential ballot as dynastic succession of the Clinton family in American politics breaches the core democratic principles laid out by our Founding Fathers,” read one Facebook post that was promoting a White House petition.

Another ad promoted a demonstration in New York City protesting Trump’s victory just days after the election.

The committee has vowed to release all of the content from the identified users once it has been scrubbed of all personal identifiable information.

Republicans and Democrats drew different conclusions

Both Republicans and Democrats expressed their frustration with the tech companies during the hearings, but were divided on the intent and impact of Russian ads on their platform.

Democrats on the panels emphasized the political savvy of the Russian operation, while Republicans tried to downplay any impact that it might have had on the election.

“[Russian actors] wished to help Mr. Trump and harm Secretary Clinton and, more fundamentally, divide Americans,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGreenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, said after his committee’s hearing on Wednesday.   

Republicans were less convinced that Russian actors aided Trump’s election win.

“We can look at the divisive content of the ads and the pages they directed people toward, and the numbers of tweets and retweets, and the manipulated search results, and draw inferences about the intent of this information operation,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrAs Trump downplayed the virus publicly, memo based on private briefings sparked stock sell-offs: NYT Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE (R-N.C.) said.

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“What we cannot do however, is calculate the impact that foreign meddling and social media had on this election, nor can we assume that it must be the explanation for an election outcome that many people did not anticipate.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Trump's new interest in water resources — why now? MORE (R-Fla.) added, “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.”

Lawmakers were frustrated with tech firms’ responses

Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate were not pleased with Facebook, Twitter and Google. They made this clear before, during and after the hearings.

After railing on all three tech companies following revelations that Russian actors ran misinformation campaigns on their platforms, Warner had said before the Senate Intelligence panel hearing that he felt as though the firms were starting to be more cooperative.

During the hearings, it became clear that he and others were less than pleased with what the companies disclosed during the hearings.

“I must say, I don’t think you get it,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination The Senate should evoke RBG in its confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Pelosi, Mnuchin push stimulus talks forward, McConnell applies brakes MORE (D-Calif.) told the firms during the hearing.

“It is self-evident that in the past election you failed. You need to stop paying lip service to bad actors shutting down these accounts,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump MORE (D-Ore.) agreed.

The firm’s emphasis on how they would do better moving forward didn’t allay lawmaker concerns. Following the hearing Warner said that he wasn’t confident in the direction the firms were headed.

"Considering how long this hearing was in the making, I was pretty disappointed that — for example, in the case of Facebook, they seemed to not have identified much beyond their initial search," Warner told reporters.

More Russian content is exepcted to be revealed

During the House Intelligence Committee hearing, the general counsels for Google and Twitter told Schiff that they would follow Facebook’s lead and let the committee publicly release Russian ads purchased on their platform.

Beyond releasing these ads that the firms have already found, lawmakers say that they expect more to be released as each company continues their investigations.

"Do you believe that any of your companies have identified the full scope of Russian active measures?" Warner asked.

“I have to say, no,” Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, replied.

Facebook has already handed over 3,000 ads purchased by Russian actors to congressional committees. The social media company says it believes as many as 146 million have seen the ads.

Lawmakers are also skeptical of Twitter’s findings and say that they believe that there’s more ads and Russian content on the company’s platform than it has found so far.

“I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly underestimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation. Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts — or potentially 48 million accounts — are fake or automated,” Warner said in his opening remarks.

Regulation discussion will continue

Last month, Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharStart focusing on veterans' health before they enlist Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-Minn.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Intel leadership urges American vigilance amid foreign election interference Intel officials say Iran, Russia seeking to influence election Senate Intel leaders warn of election systems threats MORE (D-Va.) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego More than 300 military family members endorse Biden Jennifer Lawrence says until Trump she was 'a little Republican' MORE (R-Ariz.) introduced the Honest Ads Act, which they argue will help prevent future foreign election meddling by subjecting online political ads to stricter disclosure rules.

The bill has received a lukewarm response from the tech industry. On Tuesday, during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, the companies declined to back the legislation when prompted by Klobuchar.

“We certainly support the goals of the legislation and would like to work through the nuances to make it work for all of us,” said Richard Salgado, Google's head of law enforcement and information security.

Tech companies are worried about the possibility of being held liable for content published on their platforms by third parties, arguing that it could undermine the business models underlying the entire industry.

“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 CornynDallas Morning News poll shows Biden leading Trump in Texas Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Texas) asked during the Senate Intelligence hearing Wednesday.

“Yes, we're not producing the content,” Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, responded.

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