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Tech is scary powerful, and other things we learned when Facebook, Google and Twitter testified to Congress about Russia

Five takeaways from the first of three hearings this week.

Facebook, Google And Twitter Testify Before Congress On Russian Disinformation Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Senior executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter submitted on Tuesday to the first of three hearings by the U.S. Congress as lawmakers investigate the extent to which Russia spread disinformation on their platforms during the 2016 presidential election.

And those companies got exactly what they expected: A wide-ranging grilling that called into question the industry’s size and influence, its commitment to combating the Kremlin, and even its ability to provide neutral platforms for their users’ content.

But the roughly two-and-a-half-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top crime panel, led by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, is not some flash in the pan. In many ways, it’s a sign of greater scrutiny still to come. That begins with two more congressional hearings on Wednesday, but it could continue well beyond this week as federal lawmakers eye regulation of an industry that has long lobbied to avoid it.

Here are five things we learned from Tuesday’s hearing:

1. Congress is as skeptical as ever about “big tech.” Ostensibly, lawmakers sought on Tuesday to probe the extent to which Kremlin agents spread disinformation on major social media platforms.

Repeatedly, though, the conversation returned to questions around power and influence of Facebook, Google and Twitter — and what that means for customers and consumers even when the fate of the U.S. presidency isn’t in play.

For Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, chief among the fears he aired is that Silicon Valley might not offer truly “neutral” platforms — that these social media sites embody the biases of their liberal-leaning executives and engineers. To his GOP peer, Sen. John Kennedy, his concerns came in the form of questions about Americans’ privacy rights. In exchanges that at times seemed to perplex the executives at the witness stand, Kennedy eyed whether tech companies could form intricate dossiers about their users. “I sell diet pills,” he offered as a hypothetical to Facebook. “Can you put together a list for me of all teenagers who think they’re overweight?”

Each company demurred, stressing either they couldn’t do that or wouldn’t ever try. But the Louisiana Republican’s comments seemed unavoidably rooted in a critique about Silicon Valley’s expansiveness — a debate that, if it gains true traction, threatens the heart of the tech industry the most. Admiring the sector for producing American business success stories, Kennedy still said: “Your power sometimes scares me.”

2. Lawmakers are especially critical of Facebook. Among the three tech giants that testified Tuesday, Facebook drew the greatest amount of attention and frustration. That makes sense: Russian disinformation reached as many as 126 million U.S. users, Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, revealed in his testimony.

To that end, Facebook ads, event pages and other posts from Russian trolls became the stuff of poster boards that committee members, including Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal, displayed to demonstrate Russia’s immense reach. And it was for more than mere show. Blumenthal in particular questioned if Facebook knows how, exactly, the Russia government-backed troll farm, called the Internet Research Agency, knew how to target U.S. users in the first place.

“As I said, we’re not able to see behind the accounts,” replied Stretch. That didn’t satisfy Blumenthal, however, who demanded that the company share more information about the matter in future written responses.

At one point, Democratic Sen. Al Franken even held his head in his hands as he lamented loudly that Facebook should have caught Russian disinformation far sooner than it did. His resonant question: “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 rubles, were coming from Russia?”

In the end, those repeated tough queries could set the stage for a scrutiny of Facebook that long outlasts the hearings this week — or perhaps the Russia probe more generally.

3. Lawmakers missed one key point — that they should focus on more than just ads. Sure, Russian trolls ran a limited number of ads on Google, about 3,000 of them on Facebook and then targeted Twitter through organizations like RT, a news agency supported by the Kremlin. But there’s a whole universe of other content — organic posts, stories, tweets and more that cost nothing to publish — that received far less attention.

That included the roughly 80,000 organic posts on Facebook that appeared in roughly one-third of Americans’ News Feeds. It included bots on Twitter, which received some attention during the hearing but little follow-up, even after the company offered a low estimate that only about 5 percent of accounts are automated fakes. This was the real trouble — not only because organic content has vast reach, but because it is seemingly impossible to regulate it in a way that doesn’t create conflict with the First Amendment.

4. Speaking of regulation, it faces tough odds. One key panel member, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, is part of a trio of senators who want to require tech companies to disclose more information about the political ads they accept. But tech companies signaled repeatedly today they don’t support the bill. And while lawmakers seemed sympathetic to Klobuchar’s goals, there was not some new, huge outpouring of support for the so-called Honest Ads Act from policymakers, either.

The tech industry’s response greatly peeved Klobuchar, who said — without actually saying — that the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter are not capable of regulating themselves. And it became a subject of a dig in the final moments of the hearing, well after company lawyers had left the room.

“The Duluth TV station, they get these issue ads,” Klobuchar said of a city in her home state of Minnesota. “I know they’re smaller, but they get a lot of ads, too.” Klobuchar specifically flagged the fact that Facebook and others are pledging to hire more engineers to review those ads in the first place.

5. Lawmakers are bound to turn up the heat. The next hearing — a Wednesday morning session before the Senate Intelligence Committee — already threatens to be an even tougher grilling for Facebook, Google and Twitter.

For one thing, the Senate panel and its House counterpart, which is set to hold its own hearing in the afternoon, appear to have more evidence — and a much greater understanding of Russia’s activities during the 2016 election. And the lawmakers most outspoken about the need for social media companies to clean up their platforms are Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrats on their chamber’s respective intelligence-focused bodies.

Speaking with Recode on Tuesday, Warner teased this tough oversight to come — stressing that he would challenge Facebook and others because he believes they’ve barely scratched the surface of Russian disinformation efforts.

“Hopefully, the companies are going to come even more fully clean with what happened in 2016,” he said.

You can watch the full hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday below.

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