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What will Facebook, Twitter and Google do about Russia?

Recode’s Tony Romm previews next week’s congressional hearings on social media and the 2016 election.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military exercise at a training ground at Luzhsky range near Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Sep. 18, 2017. Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

An upcoming congressional inquiry into how some of Silicon Valley’s giants handled interference from Russian agents in the 2016 elections “could be pretty disastrous,” Recode’s Tony Romm said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask.

Talking with Kara Swisher and Lauren Goode about political meddling on platforms like Facebook, Romm said that the company has already disclosed that it sold about 3,000 ads, which reached about 10 million viewers before the election. But by focusing on the paid ads, Facebook is savvily hiding part of the story.

“We don’t yet have all the answers,” Romm said. “Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Google, we’re still getting some information about what happened on those platforms and how many folks it reached. Nonetheless, with Facebook, thousands of ads reached millions of viewers — and these are just ads we’re talking about, not the other content hosted by these profiles. And this has really hit a sour note on Capitol Hill.”

Not everyone in Congress seems to fully understand how easy it is for ad buyers to conceal their true identities.

“Some of the folks on Capitol Hill focused on this keep coming back to, ‘Can’t you just look for the ads that have been purchased in rubles?’” Romm explained. “No, it’s not that easy! It’s very easy to purchase that in dollars and be a Russian agent.”

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On the new podcast, Romm also previewed next week’s U.S. congressional hearings, in which the House and Senate Intelligence Committees will grill representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter in uncharacteristically open sessions.

“Their goal is going to be to make this as boring as possible,” he said of the tech companies, none of which will be sending their top executives. “Their goal is going to be to make as little news as possible. That’s not going to work — it’s going to be the front-page story everywhere.”

Romm expects tough questions (and probably a little grandstanding) from both Democrats and Republicans; those on the left may want to air grievances about 2016, but some members of Congress on the right have been suspicious of Silicon Valley for much longer. Of particular interest is the Honest Ads Act, supported by Senators Mark Warner and John McCain, which would require companies with more than 50 million users to be transparent about ads they sold and who they targeted.

“Warner is going to ask these companies if they support this legislation, and they’re gonna need to have an answer,” Romm said. “They have said very little. They’ve said they’re going to work with the committee to continue to refine the bill, which is code for, ‘Please don’t regulate us.’”

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