Six revelations from tech's answers on Russia's election meddling

Six revelations from tech's answers on Russia's election meddling
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Facebook, Twitter and Google on Thursday outlined their efforts to keep state-sponsored groups from manipulating their platforms and interfering in the U.S. political process.

The companies detailed their efforts in 100 pages of responses to questions from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee following a November hearing about Russian interference on their platforms.


While many of the answers include rehashed facts and figures, the responses shed some new light on how the companies approached the threat of countries like Russia trying to use their platforms to influence U.S. politics.

Here are six interesting revelations from the documents: 

Facebook says its data doesn’t give insight into collusion

Lawmakers probed Facebook for any evidence it might have of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The company said that it didn’t find anything suggesting collusion and doubted that its data would shed light on any cooperation between the two.

"Facebook does not believe it is in a position to substantiate or disprove allegations of possible collusion," the company said.

The statement came in response to a question by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee MORE (D-Calif.) citing unnamed researchers who said that Facebook has the ability to parse its data and determine whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Russian groups created 129 Facebook events

Facebook said that it found 129 events created by 13 public pages linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” responsible for disseminating information intended to elicit divisions among Americans and sway the election.

Facebook said 338,300 unique accounts viewed these events, and 62,500 users indicated that they would attend in real life.

It’s unclear how many people actually showed up at these events in real life, but The Hill found one example of 5,000-10,000 people attending a rally in New York organized by one of the pages.

Lawmakers revealed during the Nov. 1 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing another example in which Russian pages organized a rally and then counter-rally, with both attended by dozens of people.

Facebook cuts Kaspersky Labs from list of anti-virus options

Facebook said it removed Russian cybersecurity company Kaspersky Labs from its list of antivirus providers for users who visit its website.

The Moscow-based company provides free malware clean-up software to users who access its platform with potentially infected computers. Up until October, Kaspersky Labs was one of the companies that Facebook worked with in offering this option.

U.S. government and intelligence officials have raised red flags about the company over suspicions that its software could enable Russian espionage on computers that have the software installed.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE in December signed into law a bill which bans the government from using Kaspersky Labs software.

Why Assange and Snowden are allowed on their platforms

Facebook and Twitter responded to questions about why figures such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden are allowed on their platforms despite criticism from some in government.

The companies, responding to questioning from Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection More conservatives break with Trump over election claims MORE (R-Ark.), explained that so long as Assange, Snowden and others do not violate their terms of service, those individuals are free to use their platforms.

“We believe that barring controversial figures from our platform or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information that our users should be able to see and debate and would detract from the public dialogue that our platform is intended to promote,” Twitter wrote.

Independent data group in the works; Google earnings from Russians still murky

Facebook told lawmakers that it is working to establish an independent organization for the purpose of sharing between companies data on state-sponsored information campaigns like those from the Internet Research Agency.

The company says that it already shares information with other companies, but this effort would be more “formal” than existing partnerships.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies already work together in other organizations to share information related to curbing extremist content and promoting child safety on their websites.

Of the three companies, Google has long maintained that the scope of Russian influence on its platforms has been more limited than Facebook or Twitter.

Despite that insistence, the company did face questions about its ad revenue from Russian-linked content. 

Google also didn't explain how much money it made from ads purchased by Russian state media outlet RT. By late last year, RT had accrued 5.5 billion views on YouTube as a member of its premium channels for advertisers. Google has since dropped RT from this spot.

Google did explain that it paid less than $35 to Russian actors for nonpropaganda advertisements placed on their content. The company also said it has received $4,700 from Russian troll farms purchasing advertisements on its platform, a number that it had already released in October.

Twitter casts doubt on results of third-party research on platform

Because of the public nature of Twitter compared to other social media platforms, third-party researchers have conducted their own studies of foreign influence on Twitter.

In documents released Thursday, Twitter cast doubt on any research conducted outside the company.

“Because third-party researchers do not have access to internal signals that Twitter can access, their bot and spam detection methodologies must be based on public information and often rely on human judgment, rather than on internal signals available to us,” the company wrote, saying that such judgements are “inherently imprecise.”

Twitter has been facing controversy over how Russian bots may have tried to manipulate discourse on its platform in favor of releasing a controversial House Intelligence Committee memo purported to reveal surveillance abuses.

Researchers outside Twitter found that Russian bots were aggressively pushing on social media for the memo from Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight MORE (R-Calif.) to be released, prompting calls from top Senate Judiciary Democrat Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and top House Intelligence Democrat Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Trump pardons Flynn | Lawmakers lash out at decision | Pentagon nixes Thanksgiving dining hall meals due to COVID-19 Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Trump pardons Michael Flynn MORE (Calif.) for the company to investigate.