UK lawmakers press social media giants over Russian influence

UK lawmakers press social media giants over Russian influence
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British lawmakers grilled Silicon Valley social media giants on Thursday over the presence of “fake news” and Russian influence on their platforms in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

The British parliament members asked Twitter, Facebook and YouTube representatives pointed questions during a special U.S. hearing over how hoax content disseminated from their websites may have swayed the 2016 British "Brexit" referendum on leaving the European Union.  

The tech representatives downplayed those concerns, citing internal data they said found that accounts linked to Russians did not heavily use their platforms in the same way thatthey did around the time of the U.S. elections.

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s U.K. senior public policy manager, told the panel that the company had only found 49 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian "troll farm," that were active during the Brexit referendum.

These accounts tweeted 942 times, and these tweets received a cumulative 461 retweets and 637 likes. Pickles stressed that the numbers represented the IRA’s limited engagement and reach on its platform around the time of the Brexit vote, but did not provide deeper analytics.

Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy, told lawmakers that YouTube found “no evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum” on its platform.

Facebook is still conducting its own investigation into the matter, but U.S. senators have challenged the quality of both Facebook's investigation and Twitter's inquiry into Russian Twitter influence on the Brexit vote.

British lawmakers also questioned the companies on their broader potential harms to society – including how their products contribute to technology addiction among children — and their data collection policies.

“I wonder, particularly with the addictive qualities, what effects Facebook’s scale and success has on the mental health of children, quite frankly,” asked British MP Paul Farrelly.

Lawmakers in America, including Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Democrats prepare to grill oil execs Biden administration pushing to include IRS proposal in spending bill despite criticism White House tries to lock down deal with Manchin, Sinema MORE (D-Va.), have also questioned Facebook’s potentially damaging effects on children.

“Your algorithms enable hyper-personalization of content that’s really finely grained to be target towards individuals. Most individuals in my experience don’t realize you’re doing that. There’s a huge power imbalance there because you are controlling it and the person who is receiving doesn’t have any control of it,” said British MP Jo Stevens during the hearing.

“It kind of reminds me, if you’ll excuse the analogy, of a sort of abusive relationship where there is coercive control. Someone is deciding what you see, read.”

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, pushed back, saying that Facebook users did have the option to set their own newsfeed preferences.