The purpose of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Tuesday was to find out what social media companies are doing to stop Russian election interference, but Democrats seemed mainly interested in getting President Donald Trump.
One by one, representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google described the efforts they have taken to identify and eliminate bogus accounts run by foreigners. They promised to do more.
Democrats on the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism cast Russian-bought ads on social media platforms in 2015 and 2016 as a grave threat to American democracy and insinuated at times that the Russians acted with Trump's acquiescence.
"We still know next to nothing about the president's business dealings in Russia or with Russians, except that he's long chased after deals there," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the subcommittee's ranking Democrat.
Whitehouse lamented that Trump has refused to make public his tax returns, and he referenced a grand jury indictment against his former campaign chief, Paul Manafort. Prosecutors allege that Manafort failed to register as a foreign agent working on behalf of a pro-Russia president of Ukraine and then used the proceeds to buy property and make other purchases.
"If you can use his alleged scheme to buy property, why not use it to make anonymous political expenditures or spend money to influence elections?" he said.
Sen Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked who helped the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency figure out how to target ads it posted during the 2016 election. Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said there is no way for his company to determine that.
"So it could have been a political campaign that provided this information about targeting?" asked Blumenthal, making a veiled reference to claims that the Trump campaign offered assistance to Russians meddling in the election.
The companies have disclosed to the committee ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency and other agents. The ads appeared designed to sow discord in the American political debate and, in some cases, to hurt 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Facebook officials have said they identified and disabled 470 accounts they determined are tied to the Russian government. The impact was tiny, comparatively. Stretch testified that it made up 0.004 percent of content that appeared in Facebook's news feed.
Sean Edgett, acting general counsel of Twitter, said false or automated accounts made up less than 5 percent of the 330 million active users. He said a review covering September 1 through November 15 of last year found that accounts linked specifically to Russia amounted to one-hundredth of 1 percent of all accounts, he said. He added that about a third of 1 percent of election tweets that people saw during that period came from Russian accounts.
Some of the efforts were almost comical. The committee has reviewed social media ads purporting that Clinton supporters could avoid the lines at polling places by texting "Hillary" to a number on their phones.
Edgett said Twitter took down text-to-vote tweets as soon as it discovered them. But he said Twitter users responded even more quickly. The tweets drew eight times as many countertweets calling them out as fake.
The executives of all three firms assured senators, however, that they take election interference extremely seriously.
"The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible that foreign actors, hiding behind fake accounts, abused our platform and other internet services to try to sow division and discord — and to try to undermine our election — is directly contrary to our values and goes against everything Facebook stands for," Stretch said.
Added Edgett: "We are troubled by reports that the power of Twitter was misused by a foreign actor for the purpose of influencing the U.S. presidential election and undermining public faith in the democratic process."
Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security at Google, made a similar pronouncement.
"Protecting our platforms from state-sponsored interference is a challenge we began tackling as a company long before the 2016 presidential election," he said.
Democratic senators seem unimpressed, however, and at times berated the executives.
"With all due respect to all of your companies, I hear a lot of Johnny-come-latelies," he said. "There's a lot that I think you could have done earlier. I suspect that your advertising department has watched the profits go up, and I wish it had spent some of those profits earlier at looking at what the content was."
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) flashed anger when questioning Stretch about why his company accepted ads paid for in Russian rubles.
"How could you not connect those two dots?" he demanded.
Franken asked Stretch if Facebook would commit to not selling ads paid for in foreign currency. The senator repeatedly cut him off after Franken asked if he would give a simple "yes" or "no" answer to the question.
"Senator, our goal is to make sure we're addressing all forms of abuse," Stretch said.
Franken interrupted again: "My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better."
Last Modified: November 1, 2017, 8:29 am