Facebook, Twitter Testimony Shows Widespread Russian Meddling

Updated on
  • Remarks detail pro-Kremlin Internet Research Agency’s reach
  • Google says 18 YouTube channels were related to same group

Facebook Tries to Get a Handle on Fake News

Technology giants Facebook Inc., Google and Twitter Inc. will give a Congressional panel more details about the reach of Russian ads and posts in the U.S. in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, according to testimony obtained by Bloomberg.

At a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch plans to say that 29 million people were directly served content from accounts backed by the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin Russian group. After those posts were liked, shared and commented on via Facebook’s social network, they landed in the News Feeds of about 126 million people at some point over a two-year period, the testimony shows. That’s equivalent to about 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Twitter found 2,752 accounts associated with the IRA, according to prepared testimony obtained by Bloomberg -- more than 10 times the number originally disclosed. Alphabet Inc.’s Google will say the impact on its sites was much smaller, with $4,700 worth of ads linked to the IRA, compared with the $100,000 Facebook earlier disclosed. Eighteen English-language YouTube channels were “likely” linked to the Internet Research Agency, Google said in a blog post ahead of the hearing. Those channels posted 1,108 videos that made up 43 hours of total content, and racked up 309,000 total views in the U.S. from June 2015 to November 2016.

The testimony from all three companies underscores that Russian operations seeking to influence the outcome of the election were more broadly focused than advertising, aimed at sparking tension through the spread of incendiary opinions. All three emphasize that they’re eager to come up with solutions to prevent similar meddling in the future, and highlight what they’re doing to coordinate with Congress so investigators can understand the problem. Facebook and its internet peers may be betting that being helpful and conciliatory now makes them less likely to face cumbersome regulation on political advertising and content.

“The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible and outrageous and opened a new battleground for our company, our industry and our society,” Stretch will say, according to the planned testimony. “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 process — is an assault on democracy, and it violates all of our values.”

The congressional hearings -- the one scheduled for Tuesday and two on Wednesday with the House and Senate intelligence committees -- are part of broader investigations into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election, won by Republican Donald Trump. U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is also conducting a separate probe into Russia’s role in the campaign.

Photographer: Servando, Kristine

Facebook’s testimony portrays the company as shocked about Russian use of its platform for political means. For the world’s largest social network, the hearings mark the culmination of a weeks-long communication offensive with legislators, including blog posts, executive outreach and the hiring of crisis public relations firms. Google and Twitter have been less aggressive about their outreach to Washington, but both called the manipulative behavior by a foreign government unacceptable and pledged to fight it in the future.

All three companies take pains to explain how small the Russian activity was in relation to what was happening overall on their platforms. Twitter’s testimony will say it found that tweets generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts made up 0.74 percent of all of the election-related tweets on Twitter from Sept. 1, 2016, to Nov. 15, 2016. Those tweets received 0.33 percent of all the impressions on election-related tweets. For Facebook, even though 126 million people may have seen an IRA post at some point during a two-year period, it equals about four-thousandths of 1 percent of the content in the News Feed.

Facebook’s testimony starts with an explanation of how its News Feed and advertising operations work, and then goes into detail about how the Internet Research Agency’s actions affected its audience. The company emphasizes work it did to secure its platform before the election, including taking down 5.8 million fake Facebook accounts in October 2016, the month before the election. The company also said it detected and mitigated Russia’s spread of hacked information on its platform ahead of the election, which was "aimed at employees of major U.S. political parties."

The Menlo Park, California-based company later plans to explain how it will work to block new fake accounts, including by requiring political advertisers to provide more documentation about their identities. Facebook doesn’t explicitly endorse any legislation, but says, “we’re taking steps where we can on our own.”

Google and Twitter also plan to highlight steps they’ve taken since the election to fight similar meddling in the future, such as identifying and shutting down fake accounts, blocking email phishing attempts, greater advertising disclosures and other methods.

— With assistance by Selina Wang, Gerrit De Vynck, and Mark Bergen

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