Representatives for Twitter, Google and Facebook appear in Congress

Tech giants are summoned to Congress over election propaganda scandal

Image credit: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

Representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter have appeared in Congress to be grilled about the impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

It is widely accepted that Vladimir Putin’s government aimed to boost Republican candidate Donald Trump’s chances of winning the election by discrediting Clinton, in order to undermine the USA on the world stage.

An FBI investigation into links between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign team led by former FBI director Robert Mueller has already resulted in high-profile campaign advisers to Trump being charged.

This week, representatives for Google, Twitter and Facebook appeared before House and Senate committees to answer questions about how digital advertising was used by Russian-backed groups to boost Trump during the run-up to the election in November 2016, and why these groups’ activities were able to continue for so long.

Representatives from all three companies agreed that they could have done more to identify and prevent meddling in the election.

Samples of Russian sponsored Facebook posts displayed in Congress

Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

Image credit: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

Democratic Senator Mark Warner, Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, laid into Facebook and Twitter for failing to have taken actions to determine the true extent and impact of Russian-backed accounts on their platforms since the activity was revealed. Warner also criticised Google for failing to identify and demote misinformation in its search algorithms.

During the hearing, Warner displayed Russian-sponsored Facebook posts. One of these, from a Russian-run Facebook page, ‘Army of Jesus’ (which mostly posted Bible quotes), depicted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as Satan, engaged in a boxing match with Jesus.

Sample of Russian-backed Facebook post criticising Hillary Clinton

House Intelligence Committee

Image credit: Facebook/House Intelligence Committee

As Google, Facebook and Twitter appeared at Capitol Hill, Congress released Russian-backed Twitter handles and more samples of Russian-backed Facebook posts. These posts were published from pages with innocuous names such as Born Liberal, Being Patriotic, United Muslims of America, Donald Trump America, LGBT United and Black Matters, mimicking the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter.

These pages impersonate a range of political views – attacking both Clinton and Trump – but are almost entirely related to contentious issues, such as race, religion and gun ownership. These posts aim to divide Americans across social lines, for instance, by falsely claiming that a black man in East Boston had murdered a police officer.

The pages were used to organise dozens of rallies in the US, including two opposing protests outside the Islamic Da’wah Centre of Houston on the same day.

“The social media campaign was [...] designed to further a broader Kremlin objective: sowing discord in the US by inflaming passions on a range of divisive issues,” wrote Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, in a statement. “The Russians did so by weaving together fake accounts, pages and communities to push politicised content and videos, and to mobilise real Americans to sign online petitions and join rallies and protests.

“Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future.

“The companies here today must play a central role as we seek to better protect legitimate political expression, while preventing cyberspace from being misused by our adversaries.”

Recently, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch revealed that 126 million Americans had viewed posts sponsored by Russia; this figure was raised to 146 million when Facebook-owned Instagram posts were also taken into account. It is thought that this enormous reach was achieved with minimal but highly targeted spending on Facebook ads.

The Internet Research Agency, outed as a “Russian troll farm” (which produces misinformation and other divisive digital content) placed at least 3,000 targeted adverts, paying out just tens of thousands of dollars, while the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent $81m combined on Facebook ads.

As Senators questioned the tech giants’ representatives, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein described the Russian activities as “the beginning of cyber warfare”.

In October, Senator Warner and a colleague introduced legislation that would place some regulations on online political ads, including requiring a disclosure of who had sponsored the content.

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