Senate Intelligence Committee holds hearings for tech firms

Congress and U.S. intelligence agencies have agreed that the Moscow Kremlin attempted to divide the general public on topics such as race and religion, as well as influence the political climate during the 2016 presidential election.

The Russian government achieved this feat largely through the use of social media, which allowed Russian sponsors to spread misinformation and libel against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. They further stirred the public’s emotions through false or exaggerated posts targeting minority groups, the police and others.  

According to Bloomberg, one account called “Army of Jesus” depicted Clinton with devil horns and red skin in a fight against Jesus. The caption encouraged Facebook users to like the post if they wanted Jesus to win.

Another Facebook post, titled “Stop Islamization of Texas,” showed an event that took place at the same date and time as a “United Muslims of America” event.

Besides degrading Clinton, many of these posts were meant to reduce the public’s faith in American democracy and government institutions.

According to The New York Times, these inflammatory posts spread by Russian sponsors reached more than 126 million users on Facebook. Additionally, more than 131,000 messages were posted on Twitter and over 1,000 videos were uploaded to Google’s YouTube service.

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently called for hearings from the technology companies most involved in the spread of false information, namely Facebook, Twitter and Google. The companies sent detailed disclosures to Congress describing the extent of the Kremlin’s misinformation campaign.

In its prepared remarks, Facebook stated that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin, posted thousands of inflammatory media content seen by around 29 million users.

Those users then liked and shared said content with tens of millions others. A similar process occurred on the photo-sharing application Instagram where the company had to delete approximately 170 accounts tied to Russian sponsors.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings were attended by top lawyers representing the social media giants. According to The New York Times, both Democrat and Republican members of the committee expressed disappointment that the answers provided by the companies’ respective general counsel were insufficient and implored them to do better.

In reference to the hearings, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said, “I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers.”

Senate Intelligence Committee members were also dissatisfied by the general counsel’s appearance at the hearings instead of the company’s executives.

“I’m disappointed that you’re here, and not your CEOs,” said independent Sen. Angus King of Maine. The committee also highlighted that the technology companies involved in the Russian misinformation campaign seemed to ignore the issue.

According to The New York Times, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee had raised the issue earlier in the year but were “blown off by the leadership of your companies.”

Several times before the election, Facebook said its own security team came across threats targeted toward employees of the Democratic and Republican parties from a group known as APT28, an organization that U.S. law officials previously linked to Russian military intelligence operations. The Internet Research Agency also purchased $100,000 in advertisements from Facebook.

One Baruch College junior, Eileen Gerard, said, “I don’t trust most of the information I read on social media, anyways. From now on, I’ll be especially careful.”

All three companies argued that their respective influences on the 2016 presidential election were not as great as Congress and intelligence agencies claim it was. Facebook is expected to say that the amount of content produced by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency represents a mere 0.004 percent of total content in a user’s news feed.

“Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you’d have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the [Internet Research Agency],” Colin Stretch, the general counsel for Facebook, might say from prepared remarks, according to Bloomberg.

Twitter has claimed that the 1.4 million Russia-linked tweets “represented less than three quarters of 1 percent of all election-related tweets” from September to November 2016. Google states that the accounts linked to Russian sponsors had very low viewer counts, and there was no evidence that they explicitly targeted U.S. viewers.

In his remarks, Stretch called the posts “deeply disturbing” and an attempt to drive people apart. He assured the committee that the company was focused and determined to prevent similar events in the future.

To prevent this from occurring again, Facebook will soon introduce new features that will tell people who purchased a particular advertisement and will maintain a public database of ads purchased on the network, according to The New York Times.

The company is also planning to increase its number of content reviewers. All three companies have expressed interest in building tools to detect foreign sponsors and misinformation on their respective websites, such as artificial intelligence.

November 13, 2017

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Jahvon Meadows

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