Facebook, Google and Twitter are in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for the first of three public hearings with congressional committees to discuss Russia’s attempt to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election by spreading misinformation online.
The three companies have already admitted that, unknown to them, Russian-backed accounts used their respective sites to share and promote content aimed at stirring political unrest. On Facebook, as many as 126 million people may have seen content from accounts tied to Russian sources.
Now Congress is trying to determine how that happened, and what impact those misinformation campaigns may have had on last year’s election, in which President Donald Trump surprisingly beat Hillary Clinton.
The first of the three hearings starts Tuesday: All three companies will testify in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee led by Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham. The hearing starts at 2:30 pm ET, and here’s who you will be hearing from, and how you can watch it live.
We’ll also provide live updates right here — please follow along!
You can watch the hearings along with us on the Washington Post’s Facebook live below.
12:50 pm ET: Happy testimony day! (Also, Happy Halloween!) We’ll be providing live updates on the hearing shortly before it begins at 2:30 pm ET, but for those eager to read more about what to expect beforehand, here are a few stories you should read to prepare.
- Here’s a preview of testimony material from Facebook, Google and Twitter. This will give you a sense of what to expect during the hearings.
- Here’s a closer look at the lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter who will testify over the next 48 hours.
- Here’s an interview Recode did with Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, ahead of Wednesday’s hearings.
- Here’s a look at what tech lobbyists are pushing for ahead of the hearings.
- Finally, here’s how you can watch the hearings live online.
2:31 p.m. ET: Sen. Lindsey Graham has called the hearing to order. Recode is in the building.
2:44 p.m. ET: Democrats and Republicans alike opened a hearing Tuesday into Russia’s attempt to spread disinformation on social media by lamenting the Kremlin’s efforts during the 2016 presidential election, stressing the need for Facebook, Google and Twitter to prevent it from happening ever again.
Gaveling in the hearing, the panel’s GOP chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, acknowledged that he and his colleagues in Congress find social media “invaluable to communicating with our constituents and getting our message out.”
But, Graham acknowledged, social media easily can — and has — “also be used to undermine democracy and put our nation at risk.” Particularly, he hinted at the fact that ads on Facebook — though he didn’t mention the company by name — had been used to sow social and political unrest. “Like we don’t have enough to fight about,” Graham said.
“The bottom line is, these platforms are being used by people who wish us harm, and wish to undercut our way of life,” Graham continued.
The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, took a much harder line, lamenting that Russian trolls had impersonated Americans on sites like Facebook and Twitter — using “biases and viewpoints against us to achieve political ends.”
2:46 pm ET: Testimonies from all three companies are now public. Facebook’s, for example, confirms what we reported yesterday — that posts from accounts with Russian ties reached as many as 126 million people in the U.S. over a two year period. That’s much a much larger group than the roughly 10 million or so people who saw ads purchased by those same accounts.
There is also an entire section on Facebook’s efforts to stop terrorists from using the platform. Facebook says it is using artificial intelligence to catch some of this terrorist propaganda. “But because terrorists also adapt as technology evolves, we are constantly updating our technical solutions to try to stay ahead,” Facebook’s testimony reads.
2:49 pm ET: Opening remarks from committee members are now over. Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch will speak first from the tech companies. He’s reading directly from this testimony now. He confirms that Facebook’s investigation is still under way, which means that Facebook may very well still come across more content, accounts or ads tied to Russian sources.
For those unfamiliar with Stretch, he has been at Facebook for a long time and is overseeing the company’s entire investigation into Russian meddling.
2:54 pm ET: And now Sean Edgett from Twitter is up. His testimony is also public — you can read it here. “Today, we intend to demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment to addressing this new threat,” Edgett just said. You may recall, when Twitter first spoke to Congress in September, Sen. Mark Warner called their presentation “frankly inadequate.” That was embarrassing, so Twitter clearly wants to be better. Edgett is now explaining how the amount of content on Twitter related to Russia was very small compared to the overall amount of content on Twitter. Expect all three companies to pound this point home today.
2:58 pm ET: While Edgett is speaking, we should note it’s a full house — both in terms of those spectating and reporting as well as lawmakers at the dais.
Along with Graham, the chairman, the Republicans here are Sens. Chuck Grassley, John Kennedy and Ben Sasse.
And with Whitehouse, the ranking Democrat on the panel, party attendees include Sens. Dick Durbin, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Al Franken, Richard Blumenthal and Mazie Hirono.
2:59 pm ET: Last but not least, here is Google’s Richard Salgado. His testimony is here. Salgado said that Google’s Jigsaw unit was involved in its internal investigation into Russian meddling. He, too, is talking about how the amount of content from Russian sources is very small compared to all of Google/YouTube’s content. Google is also committing to new political ad disclosure so that users can better identify when they are looking at a political ad, and then go back and look at previous ad campaigns that may no longer be active. Facebook and Twitter already promised the same thing.
3:04 pm ET: Opening remarks are now over and committee members will now start with questions. Sen. Lindsey Graham will go first. He wants to know if there are other countries, besides Russia, that these tech companies are worried about. Colin Stretch described it as a “global threat” without specifically naming any other countries. Graham asked if Iran and North Korea could also do this. Consensus from the lawyers was that, yes, that is a possibility.
3:09 pm ET: Facebook shed a little more light on the sort of content pushed by Russian trolls on its platform after Trump won the presidency. It was about “fomenting discord about the validity of his election,” said Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel.
3:11 pm ET: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse just asked a good question: How will you measure success when it comes to cracking down on this kind of content in the future? All three companies committed to providing answers to that question, but there isn’t time to do that now. That's common for hearings of a technical nature. Nevertheless, Whitehouse is getting at something that has been a major issue with this whole process — how do you measure the actual impact of these ads and posts? And how do you know if you’ve fixed the problem? So far the companies have committed to stopping it, but the actual impact has been hard to determine.
3:18 pm ET: Facebook’s Colin Stretch says that the 3,000 or so ads that it has already handed over to Congress represent “everything” that the company has identified so far on the ads front. So even though the investigation is still ongoing, Facebook is not sitting on any additional ads that Congress doesn’t know about. All three companies have confirmed that their internal investigations are still ongoing.
3:22 pm ET: Facebook’s Stretch is now talking about how these ads from Russian accounts were targeted to users. Stretch said roughly 75 percent of the ads were targeted to U.S. users on the whole, and the remaining 25 percent were targeted more specifically to people in individual states. The accounts also targeted people based on issues they cared about in an effort to stoke political tensions.
3:26 pm ET: RT, the Russian government-backed news network, has made its first real appearance at the hearing.
For Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the concern is that RT continued to participate in a key Google advertising program even after the U.S. intelligence community — in a report issued this January — flagged the news network as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin. In response, Google’s Salgado stressed that Google didn’t remove RT because of its content.
“The removal of RT from the program… result of some of the drop in viewership not as the result of any action otherwise,” he said.
Twitter, for its part, recently banned RT and another Russian-backed news source, Sputnik, from advertising. It is still allowed to tweet.
3:28 pm ET: The committee is now asking Edgett about how many accounts on Twitter are fake. He says that less than 5 percent of Twitter’s 330 million active user accounts are “false, spam or automated.” The reference to “automated” accounts implies that Edgett is including bot accounts in that metric. The perception from many on the outside is that Twitter’s bot problem is much larger than that.
3:38 pm ET: Sen. Dick Durbin is upset with reports that Russian trolls spread “anti-Muslim, anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ animus” during the 2016 presidential election. And he pointed to reports that Facebook may have helped those trolls spread anti-refugee messages in August 2016.
But Facebook’s Stretch — pressed on how that happened — didn’t really answer the question. Instead, he called the ads and other content “vile.”
3:45 pm ET: Well, tech giants just got their first dose of Republican Sen. John Kennedy.
Opening his line of questioning, he praised Facebook, Google and Twitter for being “American companies,” but admitted, “your power sometimes scares me.”
Then, he tangled with Facebook over how, exactly, it’s able to determine the identities of the roughly 5 million advertisers on its platform.
Then, he pivoted to privacy. “Let’s suppose your CEO” goes to another employee and wants “to know everything we can find out about Sen. Graham. He could do that, couldn’t he?”
“We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that,” stressed Facebook’s sorta-flummoxed Stretch.
3:46 pm ET: Kennedy just asked Google if it was a media company or not. Salgado said that Google is a tech company. “That’s what I thought you’d say,” Kennedy added before hastily ending his questioning.
3:48 pm ET: Will Facebook, Google and Twitter support the Honest Ads Act, a bill by a trio of Senate lawmakers that would require them to disclose much more about the political ads on their platforms?
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of its backers, asked the companies’ executives at the hearing. Not one of them said yes.
Facebook’s Stretch, for one, instead touted the social giant’s previous pledges to improve ad transparency. But the lack of support certainly disappointed Klobuchar, who asked somewhat rhetorically: “There wouldn’t be an outside enforcer of any of their policies, it would just be you, is that true?”
If you missed it, here’s our story on tech lobbying against the Senate’s new bill.
3:55 pm ET: Sen. Jeff Flake is asking Facebook how it monitors its service — humans or artificial intelligence or both? Stretch said both, and explained a bit about how algorithms can detect non-human behavior, like someone creating many accounts in a very short amount of time. But while software can detect some of this stuff, humans often need to make a final decision on whether or not contents should be removed. Twitter and Google confirmed they have similar setups.
One interesting element of this whole thing: Facebook’s Stretch is definitely getting the bulk of the questions, and spending the most time responding. Edgett and Salgado have, on numerous occasions, offered a version of “same here” when answering a question Stretch had already explained. (For what it’s worth, Congress doesn’t seem to care.)
4:05 pm ET: The first, most direct challenge to Facebook — for the disinformation spread on its site and the company’s handling of it during the 2016 election — came from Democratic Sen. Chris Coons.
Armed with poster boards showing an ad and an event created by Russian trolls, one of which questioned Hillary Clinton’s fitness from office, Coons expressed deep concerns that it showed “nothing short of the Russian government directly interfering in our election.”
And Coons challenged Facebook’s Stretch to explain why, exactly, it had taken the company 11 months to share detailed findings about Russian disinformation — particularly given reports that President Barack Obama approached Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the problem well before that. The Washington Post first reported that tidbit.
Stretch, for his part, said that Obama’s conversation with Zuckerberg was about “fake news” generally. And he said Facebook had not been “sitting around,” citing the fact that it released a report in April 2017 showing its “findings to that point.”
Coons, however, seemed unimpressed. And he said that the tech giants’ chief executives should have been testifying Tuesday.
4:12 pm ET: Sen. Ted Cruz just asked a question that wasn’t specific to Russia, but was tangentially related: Do Facebook, Twitter and Google consider themselves “neutral” platforms? Cruz brought up examples of the companies appearing less-than-neutral, like reports last year that Facebook was suppressing conservative news stories from its trending topic section.
“We think of Facebook as a platform for all ideas,” Stretch said. “We have boundaries in the sense that we don’t permit certain categories of content, such as hate speech. But within those guidelines we do not in any way discriminate on the basis of viewpoint or ideology.”
Cruz pushed back. “Is that a yes or no that you consider yourself to be a neutral public forum?” he asked.
“We don’t think of it in the terms of ‘neutral,’” Stretch continued, pointing out that Facebook tries to give users a personalized feed of content. “But we do think of ourselves as — again, within the boundaries that I described — open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology.”
Cruz hit on what many see as another major problem for all three companies: That it is impossible to both regulate what kinds of content people see (and don’t see), and still consider yourself a neutral platform for all ideas. The thinking is that you must either allow everything, or admit that your company has some kind of bias. All three companies DO NOT want to admit that.
4:21pm ET: A stunning report in The New York Times this week revealed the extent to which forces in Myanmar have spread messages of hate targeting the Rohingya. The story certainly is foremost in the mind of Sen. Patrick Leahy, who pressed Facebook to detail what it’s doing about the matter.
“You’re increasingly monetizing information from users in the developed world and you have the absolute right to do that,” Leahy said. But the Democratic lawmaker stressed that its platform should not be “used to undermine nascent demo, especially if the undermining is not losing votes its losing lives.”
Facebook’s Stretch, for his part, didn’t have much of an answer. “We view our platform in that sense as a vehicle for providing greater visibility into what’s going on around the world, and greater visibility into human rights abuses,” he said.
Leahy quickly cut him off: “We’re talking about lives.”
4:27 pm ET: Stretch was just asked who was helping the Russian accounts understand and perfect their ad targeting — like showing an anti-Hillary Clinton ad about veterans to people in Texas. Stretch said that there are many companies and individual consultants who are capable of helping with targeting insights, and that Facebook is unable to see that kind of information.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal described the targeting as “sophisticated,” and asked if it was possible that a political campaign could have provided the Russians with targeting information. (Presumably, he was asking whether or not President Trump’s campaign helped the Russians target these ads to certain people.)
“As I said, we’re not able to see behind the accounts,” Stretch said.
“Let me request that you endeavor, as best you can, with the research available to you to give us information about how the Internet Research Agency...were able to target these ads to specific groups, individuals, geographic areas, demographics, and age groups,” Blumenthal said before ending his questioning.
4:35pm ET: Sen. Al Franken had his head in his hands as he loudly lamented why Facebook didn’t catch that Russian agents had purchased misleading political ads using their own currency.
In one of the few loud, tense moments of today’s hearing, Franken opened with a frank query: “How does Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in roubles, were coming from Russia?”
Stretch endeavored to say it is something that his company should have addressed by “having a broader lens” — but Franken quickly cut him off. Noting that tech companies have “all knowledge that man has ever developed,” he took aim again: “You can’t put together roubles with political ads and go, hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?”
In Facebook’s defense, Stretch had been trying to explain that limiting its scrutiny of Russian disinformation to roubles is tough seeing as malefactors can easily purchase ads using currencies other than their own. But the tenor of his answers didn’t work well for Franken, who eventually charged: “My goal for you is to think through this stuff a little better.”
4:40 pm ET: Sen. Mazie Hirono just asked the million dollar question to Facebook’s Colin Stretch:
Hirono: “In an election where a total of about 115,000 votes would have changed the outcome, can you say that the false and misleading propaganda people saw on your Facebook didn’t have an impact on the election?”
Stretch: “Senator, we’re not well positioned to judge why any one person or an entire electorate voted as it did.”
Stretch added, again, that the content Facebook found was a “very small fraction”of everything available on Facebook and that it still shouldn’t have been there. But Hirono’s question is the big one: How much influence did this misinformation campaign actually have? It’s seems like it will be virtually impossible to quantify.
4:51 pm ET: Sen. Al Franken is now asking Facebook’s Stretch about the company’s embarrassing ad targeting feature, which allowed marketers to target ads for groups of users who identified as “Jew haters” and other inappropriate labels. Facebook claims it didn’t know those targeting categories existed, claiming they were created by a software algorithm. Franken was in disbelief over the fact that Facebook was unaware that those options were available to advertisers.
Franken asked Stretch if Facebook made money from ads targeted to “Jew haters” or similar groups. Stretch said he didn’t believe those ad targeting options were ever actually used.
“We’re not aware of any revenue that was generated” from that targeting option, Stretch said, though he added that he could not say for certain that was the case.
5:00 pm ET: The tech executives are now done answering questions. Please visit Recode this week for more coverage from Tuesday’s hearing, and coverage of Wednesday’s hearings in front of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.