On a recent episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Tony Romm returned to the podcast to answer questions about the Congressional investigation into Facebook, Twitter and Google. These three companies sent their lawyers to Capitol Hill to try to explain how their platforms were used by Russian trolls and bots to influence the 2016 presidential election.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode.
Lauren Goode: I’m Lauren Goode, senior tech editor at The Verge.
KS: You’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech.
LG: It could be anything at all, like whether Kara’s next phone is going to be a budget Android phone after last week’s podcast.
KS: No. Hello.
LG: You really don’t need the iPhone X.
KS: Yes I do, and I’m getting it, so that’s the way it’s going to go, Lauren.
LG: Well, we talked to Jackie Chang from The Wirecutter — excuse me, Wirecutter now, they’re no longer The Wirecutter — about all of the best budget picks for tack if you don’t want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars. You should listen to that.
KS: It was fascinating even though it doesn’t apply to me in any way. Anyway, so send us your questions, find us on Twitter or tweet them to @Recode or to myself or to Lauren with the hashtag TooEmbarrassed.
LG: We also have an email address, TooEmbarrassed@Recode.net. A friendly reminder, there are two Rs and two Ss in Embarrassed.
KS: Indeed, there are.
LG: Kara, we’ve been doing this podcast together for, I don’t know, almost two years now.
LG: And I’ve known you for a lot longer than that.
KS: A lot longer.
LG: I started working for you in 2011, I think.
KS: It’s time to break up.
LG: I just saw an ad on Facebook.
LG: No, our relationship has gotten better with age, it’s like a fine wine.
KS: Okay, if you say so. Go ahead.
LG: I did just see an ad on Facebook that says you, Kara Swisher, are secretly a lizard person.
KS: That is 100 percent true. That is 100 percent true. I saw a tweetstorm saying that you were a secret lizard person, that you operate a secret lizard person ring out of a pizza parlor in Silicon Valley.
LG: Nope, it was entirely bots, that is outrageous.
KS: Why? Why is it outrageous? It’s on the internet. Okay, we’ve already talked about fake news on this podcast when you brought on CNN’s Brian Stelter a little while ago, but things have gotten a lot more serious now when it comes to social media and U.S. politics, a lot more serious, so we need to talk about it more.
LG: We do. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees here in the U.S. have summoned representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google to appear November 1st, that’s next week, to figure out how social media companies were used by Russians to influence our own election here in 2016.
KS: Yes, indeed, the Russians. The Russians are coming. So, we’re going to talk about what this all means and whether that means that tech companies have finally got to take some responsibility — not as platforms, but as media companies. Since it’s a serious issue, we brought in a very serious person, which is Recode’s Tony Romm, back onto the show. Hey Tony.
Tony Romm: Hey, y’all.
KS: How you doing?
LG: Hey Tony.
I’m good. You know, bracing for next week.
KS: Bracing for next week. You were just complaining that you work too much, to me.
I didn’t say it exactly that way.
LG: What better person to complain to than Kara, your boss.
KS: Exactly, this is the best time, this is the best story ever, right?
KS: From a reporting point of view?
Yeah, yeah. From the perspective of policy and politics, it totally is, because we haven’t had this moment where all of it collides, right?
Where Silicon Valley is finally being held to the fire in Washington, D.C., for not having done enough. So it’s got intrigue, it’s got sexy Russia stuff, so it’s fun.
KS: It’s not just Russia — sexy Russia stuff — it’s not just that, it’s other things, like the whole way these platforms work and everything, and how they’re being manipulated, and how they’re being used. Of course, then we had the blowup around Harvey Weinstein, and then Trump is all over it today, it just goes on and on and on.
Yeah, it’s sort of the perfect storm right now.
KS: It is.
Russia is also a hook for a lot of people who are just generally pissed off at Silicon Valley and generally skeptical of bigness in technology, to finally sink their teeth into something.
I think it’s a big story in its own right and it’s also a microcosm for a larger thing.
KS: Absolutely. Lucky Tony.
LG: So, what do we know definitively right now about — not social media’s impact on the election from a high level. lLke, okay, we know the candidates themselves used social media as a big part of their campaigns and we know that our current president, Donald Trump, is still very active on social media. But what do we know specifically about foreign influence?
Sure. We certainly know that Russia played a role here, that Russian-backed trolls — we’re talking about specific trolls that have been identified by lots of scientists, the intelligence community, as well — sought to co-opt social media to spread their message around the 2016 election.
KS: Or just to cause trouble, too.
Or just to cause trouble. Let’s use Facebook as an example. Facebook, in the course of reviewing its files, has found about 470 accounts tied to known Russian trolls that purchased about 3,000 ads that reached 10 million viewers in the United States before election day.
KS: That they know about.
That they know about. I think one of the things we’ll keep coming back to in this conversation is that we don’t yet have all the answers. 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 even just the other content posted by these profiles and such.
This has really hit a sour note on Capitol Hill. As you guys said at the top of the conversation, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are investigating Russia’s role in this election. As part of that probe, they’ve really seized on these negative messages put out by Russian trolls, and so they’re going to demand answers from all three of these companies and their executives at a hearing next week that could be pretty disastrous for these tech companies if things really hit the fan.
KS: All right, we’re going to go into those hearings, but let’s drill down more on this influence, because it’s not just that. It’s also how, not just Facebook, but with Twitter, and then Google, which is what Susan Wojcicki was talking about a couple weeks ago, and she said, “We don’t know of anything right now” — and she used the term “right now” — “but we’re looking into it.” Immediately YouTube was implicated in some of this. Why don’t you parse between the ads and the content so that people who just have been under a rock understand what’s going on.
Yeah, that’s a very, very important distinction. With Facebook, in particular, we have 3,000 ads purchased by hundreds of Russian accounts, but those ads lead back to somewhere, and they lead back to profiles and pages that had information on them put out there by Russian agents. A lot of that information, while it hasn’t been released officially, we were able to piece it together by using web caches and so forth. It wasn’t explicitly about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, it was about sowing social and political unrest. Russian agents on these platforms sometimes took an issue like immigration or gun control or Black Lives Matter and they would take both sides of that issue in order to fuel a very vicious debate.
KS: And argue with each other.
Yeah. We know what these debates look like normally, imagine with Russian trolls kind of stoking the flames with very incendiary rhetoric.
KS: So, it pulls people in.
It pulls people in, and so we know that that happened on Facebook.
LG: In some cases, these people weren’t obviously Russians, that’s the thing, right? They’re actually posing as Americans. It’s not like it says, “My name is Olav Barishkakov,” and you’re like, “Oh.” It wasn’t obvious.
Yeah, they looked like official groups. In some cases, they would link to official organization stories and stuff.
And Black Lives Matter and immigration are real issues, so it’s not as though it was apparent to the eye, especially when you put it in the context of the other crap on Facebook.
KS: And on Twitter. On Twitter.
Yeah. So, Twitter is a little bit different. Twitter took some of the data that Facebook had and queried its own records and found a few hundred accounts, about 201 accounts operated by trolls similar to what Facebook had found, but there it was all organic content. Those 200-plus accounts didn’t purchase promoted tweets to spread their message.
KS: They were just arguing with each other.
They were just arguing with each other, putting out stuff. With Google, you’re ...
KS: [inaudible 00:07:21] Before you go there, Twitter ... It’s interesting because one of the things is, it’s hard to know, as Lauren said, it’s hard to know who they are. I literally texted a very prominent reporter — I’m not going to say who it is.
It was me.
KS: It wasn’t you, but you are a very prominent reporter — who was arguing with a bot and I said, “Stop, you’re arguing with a bot.” They’re like, “What?”
That definitely wasn’t me.
KS: I know. I was like, “You’re arguing with a bot, stop. Just stop, stop, stop, stop.” It was really how easy it is to pull relatively sophisticated people in. And just think of people who aren’t that sophisticated, who are using these platforms.
Yeah, we watch hoaxes spread all the time, so it’s certainly not a surprise that bots were a problem on Twitter or that they were a problem on Facebook. With respect to Google, since your conversation with folks over there, we have learned a little bit more as to what happened on that platform. The company hasn’t officially said anything, but it discovered about $4,000 worth of search and display ads that it thinks are tied in some way to Russian trolls. Then an additional $50,000 of ads that it thinks maybe have some tie to Russia, but the company isn’t sure.
KS: Will they really ever know these things? The way they set up these platforms, the anonymousness, the ability to buy ads immediately?
It’s certainly hard. It’s very difficult to figure this thing out. Even when you kind of do know the location of it, it’s still then difficult to figure out the authorship. So, Senator Mark Warner, some of the folks on Capitol Hill focused on this, it keeps coming back to the fact that, “Can’t you just look for the ads that have been purchased in rubles? The ads purchased with Russian currency?” Well, no, it’s not that easy. It’s very easy to purchase that in dollars and be a Russian agent.
KS: That was really ... Oh God.
It’s very difficult ...
KS: Can’t you find Boris and Natasha? Come on. Seriously. For the young ’uns, that’s from a show called “Bullwinkle” and it had featured two Russian agents, Boris and Natasha.
I actually know that. I do in fact know that.
KS: Boris, Natasha.
KS: Go ahead, move along.
LG: Or Philip and Elizabeth, for people who watch “The American.”
KS: Yes, that’s true.
LG: Which is one my favorite shows.
KS: So, it’s not Facebook ... It’s Facebook, Twitter and Google/YouTube, essentially, but it’s not necessarily Instagram or other parts of the Facebook empire, for example.
Well, it is, it actually is. In the last couple days we’ve found out that some of those 3,000 ads on Facebook, at least some of them, a very small number of them, appeared on Instagram.
We even heard from Facebook directly a couple days ago, where some of the profiles on Facebook co-opted by Russian trolls interacted with at least a few users using Facebook Messenger. In all of these cases, we don’t have the full copies of the ads or the copies of the profiles or the communications, but there’s a thinking that after the hearings conclude that the House Intelligence Committee and the company will make some of that information available for us to see.
KS: I see.
LG: What have the companies said to date in response to all of this? Maybe you could stack rank it a little bit in terms of sufficiency and how well they’re responding to what’s going on.
KS: In that vein, which company is the biggest offender, has been the most vague about everything?
I guess the most vague is probably Google at this point because it hasn’t said a whole lot of anything, but the flip side of that is that maybe Google doesn’t have as big of a problem as these other platforms do, so we’ll see at the end of the day. Facebook has probably said the most out of anybody, most likely because it had the biggest problem of all three of those platforms.
KS: Sheryl did the tour of the D.C. ...
Sheryl did the tour, she came to hang out in D.C., Mark Zuckerberg did his kind of awkward Facebook Live thing.
KS: Hostage video.
Yeah, it was his hostage video, which looked to me like a Congressional testimony without Congress in front of him, but ...
KS: I was like, “Get a light. Get a light. It’s down at BestBuy for whatever ...” Anyways ...
So, Mark did his whole thing and they’ve put out a whole blog post talking about some of the things they want to do going forward, hiring thousands of folks to start reviewing political ads, and investing in machine learning to kind of spot some of these things before they reach the Facebook platform.
KS: Didn’t they fire people, editors?
I don’t know if they fired anybody.
KS: Before. Before, that’s what sort of led to some of these fake content stuff.
Well, but remember, a lot of it was coming from profiles that seemed legitimate at the time.
KS: Right. At the time.
Which is really one of the things I think you can expect to see at this hearing next week, that being members of Congress, slamming the company for not having done more before the election to police its platform and the ads purchased on there.
KS: So, why didn’t they?
Well, I think for the reason that Facebook is under criticism for not doing a lot on a range of things when it comes to abuse and content on their platform. We can get to that, companies like Facebook are in a bit of a vice.
Twitter took the most heat out of everybody because they were completely mum on specifics when they met with the House and Senate Intelligence Committee just a few weeks ago. Those two committees were really pissed off because Twitter didn’t show up with copies of some of the information they had found, it didn’t do enough or exhaustive of a search in the eyes of Senator Mark Warner. Plenty of criticism was levied on Twitter for its response to that. So far, the company hasn’t actually announced any steps that it’s going to take to prevent this problem in the future other than to say that they’re being vigilant.
With Google, as we said, they haven’t announced any of their findings and so they haven’t announced any solutions here, but I think you can expect to see a lot of members of Congress pillory these companies for not having done enough sooner.
KS: All right.
LG: Well, they did give people the ability to write things with 280 characters now, so ...
KS: Yeah. They didn’t yet, it’s not out to everybody.
LG: You just got more room to run with, really.
Do we all have 280? I have 280.
KS: I don’t have 280.
LG: No, I don’t.
I don’t know who gave me 280, but it’s just dating tweets.
KS: Kara Swisher does not have 280. Kara Swisher needs 280.
KS: I’ll just say, hello Jack Dorsey, get me 280.
All right, so how is this little kabuki dance on November 1st going to happen at the intelligence ... Exactly what happens? It’s also not — the bigs aren’t coming, right?
Yeah, the bigs ...
KS: There’s no Sheryl, Sheryl ain’t trotting herself out there.
Sheryl certainly ain’t trotting herself out there.
KS: She ain’t.
Facebook has never been so happy for an earnings call as they are. It’s the same day as earnings, the hearings. Oh, who knew? Nevertheless, we won’t see Mark Zuckerberg and crew testifying.
Regrets. But we will see the top lawyers for these companies, the general counsels for these companies.
KS: So, Kent Walker.
The Kent Walker crowd, Colin Stretch from Facebook, and so forth, the acting general counsel at Twitter-
KS: Is Vijaya Gadde going to-
No, acting general counsel ...
KS: Because she’s ...
Yeah, because she’s out.
They’ll be up there fielding questions. Typically the House and Senate Intelligence Committees don’t do their work out in the open. When these companies have come in to brief members, it has always happened behind closed doors.
Typically, when they do hold hearings, they’re done in classified settings, so reporters certainly can’t get in, but this will be an open hearing that folks can watch and livestream.
KS: They’re doing it for attention, right? You explained that before.
It’s not just attention, there is a real issue here. A lot of what Congress does is ...
KS: Right. What you were saying is that they can’t ... There was a New York Times piece today talking about how useless a lot of these Russia committees in Congress are going to actually be, and Mueller is the only game in town, but you were saying this is something they can talk about and show a light on.
Yeah, this is one of the few things that they can talk about, this is not classified. Facebook is out there putting information about what it has found in its platform, so it’s fair game for these lawmakers to talk about and it’s an easy thing for them to sink their teeth in.
KS: So, open.
Yeah and I think you’ll see that, I think you’ll see a lot of very earnest questions about what these platforms did or did not do, I think you’ll probably see a bit of grandstanding from folks who really want to beat up on Silicon Valley for just generally not doing enough on anything, and I think that these companies are in for what could be a pretty tough day before Congress. If you’re on the perspective of Facebook or the vantage point of Facebook, Google and Twitter, their goal is going to be to make this as boring as possible.
KS: So they sent their most boring people.
Essentially. I think their goal is going to be to make as little news as possible. Now, that’s not going to work, it’s going to be the front page story everywhere, but ...
KS: Who are the biggest grandstanders on these committees? Who really wants to ...
The biggest grandstanders?
KS: You don’t have to insult the senators, but who wants to make the most ... I saw Bannon this weekend talking about the lords of technology, which obviously, there’s no ladies of technology.
But there are Republicans who generally have been skeptical of Silicon Valley, this is well known.
KS: Right, like who?
This predates the stuff that we’re talking about with Russia, who generally feel that Silicon Valley has not given conservatives a fair shake. I do expect to see a little bit of that from members of the committee. I’m not exactly sure who’s going to go there, but I would not be surprised to see a few Republicans raise that issue.
I would expect Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat in House Intel, and Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on Senate Intelligence Committee, to go hard on these companies. They have been the most outspoken when it comes to what they did and didn’t do, they have been the most aggressive at pushing the companies to do more, and I think you can expect to see that. With Warner in particular, he’s out there with a piece of legislation that would regulate the way that these companies ...
KS: Can you explain that for me, please?
Yeah. One of the big issues here is about advertising and getting a better sense as to who is advertising on your platform and how much they’re paying, and who they’re trying to reach. Right now, if you’re the Citizens Against Lizard People, you can run an ad on broadcast television, and as a result of that, you have to provide certain information and the network has to make that information available about what the ad said and how much it cost and when it ran, which gives you a sense as to who saw it.
KS: And who bought.
And who bought it. If you ran that same ad on Facebook or ...
KS: Even in a video.
Yeah, even in a video. There are very ... The rules aren’t the same. Certainly, a copy of that ad isn’t made available, there is very limited, if any, information about who it targeted, and while there are disclosure rules, you have to say it was paid for by the Citizens Against Lizard People. It’s not always clear and conspicuous ...
KS: Why? Why don’t they follow the same rules?
Well, because the law doesn’t say that they have to, so they certainly don’t.
KS: If it’s a video? A video’s a video’s a video.
Yeah, a video is a video is a video, but ...
KS: Yeah, but it’s distributed differently.
Yeah, it’s a much different world.
KS: It’s over the airwaves.
So, the piece of legislation that’s being put forward by Senator Warner and some others, including Senator John McCain, the only Republican who has signed onto this effort called the Honest Ads Act ...
KS: The only one, yeah. Why is he the only one?
Because Republicans have lots of questions about campaign finance and campaign finance regulation, and maybe they’ll get more in the coming days, but we’ll see. Their bill, which came out last week, is the Honest Ads Act and it would essentially require these companies with more than 50 million users in a majority of months in a year to make copies of those ads and information about who they targeted available for public inspection.
To get back to the original question about who’s going to make the most noise at these hearings, Warner is going to ask these companies if they support this legislation and they’re going to need to have an answer.
KS: Do they?
They have said very little. They said that they’d work with the committee to continue to refine the bill, which is code for, “Please don’t regulate us.”
KS: But they’re going to get regulated, right?
One good thing ...
KS: What’s that?
The thing I’ve learned about in covering Congress for the 2.4 million years I’ve been alive is that you probably should bank on inactivity more than activity.
KS: Or a watered-down version.
Or a watered-down version. Right now, there’s nothing to suggest that this bill is going to move before the 2018 midterms. It’s a long haul to get this bill through a committee, both House and Senate, to get it to the floor, to make sure it’s the same version, to get it to the President’s desk, which is another matter entirely.
KS: I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill. I saw that.
Yeah. A lot of people have.
LG: That’s going to be her Halloween costume.
KS: Yeah, it’s a shot across the bow though, it certainly is, no question.
Yeah, yeah. We’ll see if that actually becomes a law. More likely it’ll just prompt the companies to make changes on their own to stave off the bill becoming a law.
LG: Actually being regulated, right? My question is around how many people we think were actually influenced by this. You mentioned some numbers earlier in the show, about the number of ...
KS: The 10 million ...
LG: Yeah, how many, I guess, people have seen it, but have there been any reports yet or any surveys done on how people felt or were possibly actually impacted by this? Or voted based on information that was the result of foreign influence?
Well, this is sort of the genius in what Facebook has done. You want to talk about PR moves, Facebook has focused exclusively on ads, “We had this many profiles and they ran 3,000 ads and 10 million people saw them.” What you haven’t heard from Facebook is the total number of people who saw the posts and the pages, the organic content that wasn’t advertising.
If you talk to some academics who have studied this, they think it’s into the tens of millions of people who have seen this in their News Feeds. Now, whether that affected them, that’s hard to say, that’s a very hard thing to measure and I certainly can’t wager an argument either way. The other outstanding question is, how much some of those ads linked back to the Trump campaign or maybe even to the Clinton campaign.
KS: Well, I think part of the thing is they have this loosey-goosey platform ...
KS: And then they’re like, “Who knows?”
KS: Of course, they created it. They’re all built for growth and not for control and so anything that gets in the way of growth, they remove.
KS: It’s sort of unsafe at any speed, you know what I mean?
What’s the big growth thing for Twitter? It’s monthly active users. What happens if you crack down on potentially, what, 40-plus million bots, depending on whose number you want to use? Your monthly active users don’t look so great.
KS: Yeah. It’s just ...
There’s a very cynical crowd out there who thinks that Twitter probably could deal with some of this problem.
KS: It’s not a cynical crowd, it’s everybody. Everybody but the people at Twitter. Of course, they even think, once they leave the building they say it, kind of thing. In their case, they have a lot smaller groups of people to deal with, they’re not making money, they’ve got management mishaps. Facebook almost has no excuse to really crack management team, they’re making money hand over fist.
Yeah, and it does seem that Facebook is trying to learn, right?
After the U.S. election they had to deal with the French election and some other European elections, and now they’re thinking about the 2017 election in Virginia and the 2018 election around the country, and it seems like they have done things, they’ve put some new checks into place.
KS: Well, they’ve got to.
But whether they’re effective remains to be seen. We do know that with the French election they took down some 30,000 accounts.
They were very active there, knowing what the threat was. This is the question facing all of these platforms. But just to zoom out a bit, one interesting question that I don’t think these companies really have figured out yet is how to deal with something like Russia Today, RT. This is a news network that is clearly tied to the Kremlin, the U.S. intelligence community many times has said that it’s basically the propaganda arm of the Russian government.
KS: What are they, the Fox News of Russia?
Oh boy. So, RT has ...
KS: I’m making Tony’s poor life such a miserable thing.
I’m going to get so many emails later.
KS: Too bad.
They have millions of ...
KS: You don’t work for me, whoever you are.
They have videos that have millions of views on YouTube, they have tweets that Twitter flagged throughout the election that promoted some of the stories that related to WikiLeaks, they have a page on Facebook right now, does that count as propaganda that Facebook should take down? In the eyes of the company, it’s no, that’s a speech issue that affects users from other countries.
In the eyes of some in the United States who are pretty pissed off at the coverage from RT, the answer is yes, it should be taken down. At this moment right now, RT stuff is still available, they’re still allowed to advertise on a platform like Facebook and Twitter, I asked them about it just a few weeks ago. That’s a much bigger problem, though, than these companies or even the U.S. government has come to terms with.
KS: The free speech thing.
LG: These tech companies and these platforms have long been seen as promoters of free speech and have often erred on the side of doing ... Whatever the rules they have in place, keeping with terms of service and policies that err on the side of, “Okay, well, that falls into free speech, so we can keep that up.” Now, the public perception of them as these do-good companies or even just somewhat benign companies is changing. Do you think that they could be regulated in a way that fundamentally changes the way social media works as we’ve known it to date?
You’re absolutely right. This is, I think, the story of 2017, which is platform responsibility, because it’s more than just Russia, remember, we’re also dealing with some of these same issues when it comes to white supremacy and the things that were said around the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. We’re having the same conversation right now in the U.S. Congress about sex trafficking, of all things, where there are members who want these companies to crack down and the platforms say, “Oh, we’re a neutral platform, we can’t get involved in the things our users post, at least not in the way that it opens us to more lawsuits.”
This is the defining question now, but it’s not an easily answered one, because from the perspective of government, yeah, sure, you can hand down these edicts, but then you end up in a first amendment fight. From the perspective of the companies, yeah, they probably could do more, but we’ve seen time and again when a company makes the wrong decision about the stuff that it takes down, particularly when it relies on an algorithm that can be easily gamed to flag things as abuse that aren’t actually abuse, that we find ourselves asking the question, “Should these companies have this power at all? Should they be the gatekeepers?”
KS: The utility question.
Yeah, I mean, should they have a gatekeeper role at all? Are we comfortable with a company playing this role? These are not very easily answered or easily regulated issues.
KS: At some levels, they made all this money, that’s their response, you know what I mean?
KS: Their responsibility. Last question before we get to lots of questions, listener questions: So do you think people are really turned off by social media or is this a Washington, media, Silicon Valley confab, or are most people just oblivious to it?
I think it’s probably a little bit of all of the above, but I don’t think the Russia piece has turned people off the social media. I think it’s a frustration with the tone of stuff that’s on there, with the tone of the conversation that’s on there, with the abuse that’s happened on some of those platforms, and some of that overlaps with Russia and some of it doesn’t overlap with Russia.
KS: How it makes you behave, one behave, too.
Yeah. There seems to be a ... Then you layer the privacy questions on top of that, that have always presented themselves when we’re talking about social media. I think that this is just feeding into that frustration, but when you look at the numbers, it doesn’t suggest that millions and millions of people are no longer using Facebook and Twitter. They’re still using them. I think we have a lot still to learn.
KS: It’s also an addiction, in some way.
KS: It’s like Cheetos or something.
KS: Digital Cheetos. You’re laughing a lot today, Lauren, I’m very funny. You liked my Fox News ...
LG: I like just listening to you, too.
KS: Lauren liked my Fox News joke. That was from a New York Times article, too, by the way, FYI, that joke was. It was talking about the relationship in the administration ...
LG: I really feel like I could just listen to you guys go on and on. I’m just going to sit back. We don’t have any ads this episode.
KS: We don’t.
LG: I’m surprised we don’t have like a vodka ad here.
KS: Say it in Russian. “Ka-ching, Natasha.”
LG: Yes. Ka-ching.
LG: The Verge cast has a ... They have a fake vodka called Scissor Vodka, cut through the night, so perhaps we can just borrow their ad for this one.
KS: Vodka, yay, se la vodka. Rubles. Rubles, ka-ching. Jesus, did someone really say ... What is wrong with our government, honestly? You know the old Mark Twain quote, you should always be loyal to your country and loyal to the government when it deserves it. It’s a very good quote.
I’m going to get so many emails later.
KS: No, it’s a Mark Twain quote, it was in another New York Times article, another ad for the New York Times.
Anyway, we’re here with Recode Senior Policy and Politics editor Tony Romm, he’s horrified with me, we have to have lunch and talk about this, talking about social media and politics. Now, we’re going to take some questions on the topic from our readers and listeners. Lauren, would you read the first question? From a fantastic name.
LG: Yes, first question is from someone named Boris ...
LG: No, I’m just kidding, it’s really not.
KS: Nyet, nyet.
LG: It’s from Keegan Goerz @YoGoerz, Goerz, I hope I’m saying that correctly, on Twitter. “Is it possible for social media platforms to solve this problem or does it take politicians the world over to regulate? I.e. regulate that no political campaigning can be done on some platforms. Think about the strict U.K. media laws for campaigning."
KS: That’s interesting.
LG: I’d just add, it’s apparent that Keegan has 280 characters, Keegan.
KS: Keegan, what the hell, Keegan.
LG: That’s a long tweet right there.
KS: Because I’m going to be interviewing Margrethe Vestager soon, in a couple of weeks.
There’s certainly a lot of concern in Europe about this.
A great deal of concern there.
KS: And action.
And action, but the thing that they have, as the question points out, that the United States doesn’t have, are much stricter media laws. So, let’s take France, actually, as an example.
KS: Let’s take France.
Let’s take France. We saw a hack on Emmanuel Macron’s emails that came out just days before the vote, but first, there are blackout rules there where the candidates can’t speak in the run-up to an election. Second, the country’s electoral ...
KS: Explain the blackout, they can’t report on them.
Well, you can report on them, but they’re not allowed to speak in the, what, 48 hours or so before the election?
KS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
The electoral regulators in the country essentially issue a warning to media outlets not to publish the emails because there was unverified and in many cases incorrect information.
KS: And they followed along.
And they followed it, with a couple exceptions. Russia Today was one that did not follow it, but the Guardian and others followed the edict from France. So you didn’t see this tidal wave of stories there before their election that you saw here with WikiLeaks and the Clinton emails.
KS: Because we have no control.
But there’s a big question there: Should the U.S. government do that? I think there are a great many folks who think the answer is no, that there shouldn’t be any regulation like that.
There’s not a single person in Capitol Hill who is even suggesting as much. All we’re really talking about right now is political ads and political ad disclosure. Even that’s been a difficult thing to do.
KS: Take on the big one, can they even solve this problem? They’ve created it, for sure, by making these platforms without thinking.
They can do a lot. Solve? I don’t know, but they can certainly do a lot by having more manual review of political ads. I mean, Sheryl Sandberg came out and did her whole mea culpa after the report by Pro Publica and others on the ways that folks were gaining Facebook’s ad system to reach Jew haters.
And things of the sort, just writing in categories for their ad targeting. There are things that the company can do, and the company and others — like Twitter and Google — are saying that they’re doing them, but I think that it hasn’t happened as fast as folks would like.
Particularly given the fact that Silicon Valley talks so much about how smart and fast and great they are, why can’t you devote your resources to fixing this problem?
KS: Tony, they only do that when they want to praise themselves. When there’s an actual problem, “It’s very hard, Kara. Very hard.”
KS: “Do you know how hard it is?” No, you don’t, because you’re not technical, but ...
I will give them all the credit, dealing with free speech issues is as hard as it gets and they have a lot to do here, and the impacts of the decisions they make with their algorithms have great repercussions around the world.
KS: Absolutely. Too bad. It’s the life they’ve chosen.
KS: It’s the life they’ve chosen.
LG: They move fast and break things when it’s good.
KS: It’s the life they’ve chosen, we’re going to go to “The Godfather” now.
LG: Yeah. They don’t move fast when it comes to breaking democracy.
KS: Oh my God, you haven’t seen “The Godfather”?
KS: “It’s the life we’ve chosen.” It’s the life they’ve chosen, to be billionaires, they can fix it. Anyway, thank you, that’s my answer.
Travis Smith, @IamTrav182: “Why aren’t tech CEOs more concerned with the degradation of their platforms?” That’s exactly the second point. Tony?
Yeah. You can see the spectrum of CEO involvement on this issue. So, Mark did his interrogation video, Sheryl came to D.C. On the other side of that, I have heard not a word from Jack Dorsey at Twitter on the Russia issue in particular.
Where is he? That’s a good question, they’ve done a lot of it out of D.C. Google has just been quiet all around.
KS: Because we don’t know who’s running that place.
Yeah. Google hasn’t said a whole lot. Facebook has been the most active, but it also has the most to lose here. I think that there are some in the tech industry that were kind of annoyed that Facebook had their CEO out there, to kind of elevate the issue, but that’s another matter entirely.
KS: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of discontent between all of them.
KS: In fact, can I ask a related question about the degradation of tech, essentially. One of ... I was somewhere, one of the big companies that is not involved in this because their products don’t affect it, we’re talking about the viral contagion from these two to all of tech. They’re like, “Why should ... This is getting all of us and we didn’t do anything, and we’re annoyed by that.”
Yeah. We focused on Facebook and Google and Twitter, but there are other companies that have done their own investigations, some of which have been more public than others. Snap, for instance, has been very forthcoming, but it hasn’t found any Russia-related ads in its platform. Your favorite company, Yahoo, now Oath, has said ...
KS: I don’t care.
... actually nothing as to what may or may not have happened with respect to ads.
KS: No, they were just ...
It’s a spectrum.
KS: They’re just hacking emails there, but for billions of people ...
LG: Yeah. They’re just under Oath now.
KS: Under oath now.
KS: Nobody wants to go there.
LG: Their transition from Yahoo now Oath is just never going to sound good.
KS: No. Even the Russians don’t want to go ... “No, Boris, we don’t want to go there. No, nobody goes there, it’s not cool anymore.” Snap you can’t do it with, the way it’s set up, right?
Yeah. There’s more manual review there.
KS: You just can’t game it that well.
Yeah. It’s much different.
KS: Stories, you’ve got to do states, it’s just too hard.
Well, with the video ads that run in between snaps when you’re look through a story and stuff, those are very, very controlled. I think there was at least a question like, “Oh, we should check to make sure geo filters hadn’t been co-opted in some way," but again, those are all ... it sound weird, but-
KS: Come to Siberia ...
Hey, remember, it sounds weird, but during political rallies in the course of the 2016 campaign, both sides were taking out ads near their opponents’ rally.
KS: That is true.
And there’s definitely a way to reach people in a more intimate way. But again, Snap did not have that problem.
KS: Harder. Harder. Next one, Lauren?
LG: The next few questions are all about, I guess, data tracking and identifying issues on social media. We had a question from Sarah Camden, one from Alex Hardy, and one from someone named Somite, I might be saying that incorrectly. “What percentage of accounts are fraudulent and what methods can platforms use to better verify identification of bad actors?” “Are there any comparisons, or metrics, or ways to track the spread of false information and hoaxes?” Which is a great question. “What is the best way to identify a bot or a troll?” So, I guess a couple of those questions are about the companies and how they can identify potential problems, but then if you’re a consumer of these platforms, how do you identify a bot or a troll?
Yeah, it’s very difficult. In terms of the numbers, I don’t have a comprehensive number. And I think if we knew, the companies might be more inclined to take faster action. At least with Twitter we know there are probably millions of bots, and Facebook we know there are many, many, many fake profiles and pages. Insofar as a comprehensive number, I don’t know.
KS: You had some academics ...
Yeah. Yeah. Some academics at Oxford and others have really started studying this stuff, which actually leads to two related problems/questions to be had here. The first is whether these companies need to make more of their data available for academics and others to do this kind of analysis. There was a bit of a fight over a report about Twitter between the academics who produced it and the company. The company was very quick to criticize it as ... To be clear, the report was about misinformation spreading on the platform. The report criticized Twitter, Twitter then went back to the academics and they were like, “Well, hey, if you had just made the full fire hose of tweets available to us, we could do a more comprehensive study,” but Twitter won’t do that. So, we might have better information if only folks had access to the data they would need to do the analysis.
The other side of that is about government. One of the things that Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook said while she was in D.C. over the past week or two, week or so, is that she feels that the U.S. government needs to do more to give information to tech companies that they can find these Russia-tied bots or accounts, or whatnot. There is a bit of information sharing that goes on and Sandberg did not specify exactly what ...
KS: That’s their story. I heard internally that that’s their thing, it’s the government’s fault, essentially.
KS: I wouldn’t disagree with that. These are countries attacking companies. As powerful and rich as these companies are, it’s a country attacking you, and so the government should be ... The government knew a lot more stuff early on before and didn’t seem to ...
Yeah. There’s certainly a knowledge gap and this has happened in many contexts, whether it’s national security or cybersecurity or whatnot, that there isn’t enough conversation between the private sector and the U.S. government on these issues of national importance. At least Sheryl’s comment now — and I think you can expect to see Facebook do this at the hearing next week —
KS: They’re going to talk about that.
They’re going to turn it and they’re going to be like, “You guys need to do more to help us spot this stuff.”
KS: Even though I think it’s a tactic on their part, I think that they’re not incorrect in terms of ... It has the luxury of being true because it’s a country attacking companies.
KS: That’s a very different thing. Lauren, you want to ask the next one?
LG: Sure. Next question from Adam Engelbrecht, and an email, as well: “Should we be talking social media at all, or really education?” The email from Roger Evans says, “What impact has the American educational system, or lack thereof, had on American politics? What is fact-based, what is fact-based research, etc.? Would we recognize a fact if it walked up and bit us? Climate change is one example.”
Kara, we’ve talked about this a lot in the podcast, and one of the things I really like about your approach to this is that you just really feel like people should take more personal responsibility for this kind of thing.
LG: So, how much does this fall on the education system, but also Americans to stay educated and stay aware of what appears to be fake or bots?
KS: Well, one thing, before Tony answers, I would point out that CNN has a fantastic ad, I just tweeted it, going around where they have a picture of an apple, it says, “This is an apple, it is not a banana. It is not a banana. Some people will say, ‘Banana, banana, banana,’ really loudly, they’ll tweet, ‘Banana, banana, banana,’ all day, and it’s an apple.” It’s a great ad to point out this problem about ... That’s not education, it’s the divisiveness. Tony, why don’t you talk about that. Is it an educational problem and we’re just as dumb as can be, or what?
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is that we have more ability now than ever before to learn stuff, but also seem to know the least about stuff.
KS: That is a very profound statement.
It’s not as if there aren’t wonderful articles out there in the New York Times or Recode.net, right?
Where you can learn about these things, but people tend to take the path of least resistance, especially when they’re consuming information on social media, and I do often see my college-educated friends sharing stories of very, very dubious origins.
KS: What do you do?
I drink, mostly, is what I do, that’s generally it. There’s only so much you can do to correct people. It does come down to personal responsibility, I firmly believe that. The problem tends to be when these fake news sites look really convincing ...
KS: Yeah, that’s absolutely the worst part.
And I don’t know if people have the tools to kind of choose one source over another, which is a long-time problem, it’s not new to the social media age, figuring out what’s right and what’s not right. I think you layer on top of that the fact that the White House, for better or worse — and I know I said for better or worse, there’s no better to it — constantly attacks journalists. So, you end up in this weird information environment where everything seems wrong or is fake news, depending on ...
KS: Or everyone has their interpretation or doesn’t believe it, or just decides they ...
KS: People, for centuries, have been making their own decisions based on almost no evidence and do it.
KS: I literally had my mother in a car this weekend and we were using Google and Wayz, and a whole bunch, to get somewhere, and she was like, “No, this way is better,” and we’re like, “No, it’s 37 minutes longer,” and she goes, “No, I know.”
KS: I was like, “I’m sure I’m going to rely on the algorithm for this one.”
KS: It was just completely, no ...
LG: Well, there’s also this idea of self-selection.
LG: You can tell people all you want, and people could be reading legitimate news sources that are not fake news, or looking at an ad that is a legitimate ad, but if it already just ... It sort of reaffirms whatever they have in their head, any biases that might exist, then you’re not ... You may not take the time to go look at an alternate source.
KS: Yeah, bias confirmation.
All right, next question, from Patrick Callahan Jr, “What is Twitter’s rationale for not creating a better, more trustworthy user verification system?”
I don’t really know Twitter’s full rationale as to why they haven’t done that.
KS: I think you hit your nail on the head, the growth thing.
Yeah, growth certainly has a lot to do with it, they ... I get that there are good bots, there are bots on Twitter that are actually useful, or they’re funny, or whatnot, but at some point, there does need to be a bit of a scrubbing there, at least in my opinion. As the person who’s not the social media reporter, maybe that’s wrong, but I certainly think that they do need to do a little bit more. The verification system is its own mini problem because there are a lot of folks on there who are unverified, who are spreading misinformation and that adds to the thing we were just talking about, which is figuring out the difference between a fact and not a fact.
When you have conspiracy theorists who have the blue check mark and they’re sending out information, the people are trained to see the blue check mark as a sign of authenticity. That is a problem with the platform.
KS: And it moves Washington.
Yes, it does move Washington, all this stuff moves Washington because it gets to a staffer, and it gets to the boss, and the boss goes on MSNBC and talks about it. So, it’s very easy to shape the conversation that way.
KS: All of democracy. Lauren?
LG: This is from Rohan Bade: “Did companies — Facebook and Google — deliberately not act when the issue of fake news was highlighted pre-election?”
No, I don’t think that they were deliberate in not acting, I think it was two different things. The first was a belief that the problem wasn’t as bad as it ultimately was. Mark Zuckerberg has said as much, he’s essentially done his mea culpa, admitting that things were way worse, and this came after that ... It may have been the Times that reported it, where Barack Obama approached Zuckerberg and approached Facebook to say ...
KS: “Hey now.”
“You guys need to be more mindful of this sort of thing.” I think it was a sense that the problem wasn’t as bad as it is. I think that it’s this belief that time and time again keeps being proven wrong, that the platform can’t always be a dumb platform. This has been the tale from Silicon Valley since the very beginning, “We’re just the place.”
“We’re not the content, we didn’t do anything.”
“We aren’t the users, the platform is dumb, you guys post what you want to post,” but that consistently is getting this industry in trouble in 2017.
Whether we’re talking about racist content or sex trafficking or Russia co-opting an election.
KS: The government’s going to get involved.
Silicon Valley is going to fight tooth and nail to stop government from interfering with the algorithm, which is supposed to be this neutral, all-powerful god with the platform.
KS: Well, that’s not going to hold water, I would say, correct?
KS: We’ll see.
KS: Is this correct, they’re spending a lot more money on lobbying like crazy?
Over the course that I did on this beat, it’s just gone up exponentially in terms of what they’re spending in Washington, D.C. Russia and some of these other issues that we’ve discussed feature prominently on the lobbying disclosures that came out on Friday.
This is RM Loveland: “Given Clinton lack of boots on the ground in rural regions, isn’t blaming the internet companies a red herring?” Well, it’s not one or the other, and that’s the other thing, Brad Parscale, who worked for the Trump administration ...
KS: Whatever, him.
KS: That guy. He was saying they embedded Facebook people, which I think was just not so.
Well, it’s not weird, actually, because they do it all the time.
KS: No, because they do it all the time. He was misspeaking, in a way. He was making it ... Embedding is a very heavy term ...
KS: And I think Facebook ... Just to be clear, Facebook and Twitter and others bring staffers to big clients and help them use the tools. They did it when I was at the Wall Street Journal, they’ve done it for Recode, LinkedIn has come in and stuff. So, in Facebook’s case, the Trump campaign availed themselves of the help from Facebook, for example, and perhaps the Clinton administration campaign didn’t. Can you talk about this? Whether isn’t blaming the internet company is a red herring?
I just don’t think it’s mutually exclusive.
You can talk about ... This issue was bigger than Clinton. I think folks often lose sight of it because it’s happening under the auspices of the 2016 presidential election investigation, which, at its face, is, did Donald Trump benefit from the interference of the Russian government?
This is beyond that, because if foreign powers are ... Even folks who aren’t part of the Russian government are trying to spread misinformation, co-opt social media, cause trouble around elections, then it’s certainly an issue that Congress and the federal government should be exploring.
KS: 100 percent.
That being said, one of the outstanding questions we have right now is the extent to which these ads that appear on Facebook and elsewhere have any overlap with the work that Parscale did in targeting, or the work that the Trump campaign did ahead of Election Day. You’ll see questions about that and you probably won’t get any answers.
KS: Probably, and that’s never going to be solved, is it?
LG: I think if you’re going to look at factors, any factor that goes beyond digital, which is what this podcast is focused on, but then you also have to ... If you’re looking at boots on the ground and where people campaigned, you also have to look at things like potential voter obstruction, you have to look at things like gerrymandering.
LG: You have to look at all of those factors once you get into the non-foreign influence, non-digital realm.
KS: Yeah. So, not mutually exclusive.
Not mutually exclusive.
KS: You shouldn’t because, again, as Tony said, a foreign country interfering with our elections is bad.
KS: Everyone, hear that? Bad.
One interesting point ...
LG: Depending on where you fall, it’s bad.
One thing to keep in mind: Mark Warner, top Democrat, Senate Intelligence Committee, his state of Virginia has its elections this month, or next month, it’ll be November, that’s ... It’s a rare thing Virginia does, it’s the off-year before the midterm election, so for him, this is an issue that’s of pressing, personal, local concern. It’s more than just about Hillary Clinton.
KS: Yeah, absolutely. If it works for them this time, they’ll do it again and again. If we don’t stop it or somehow put a flag in the ... Whatever, whatever you do to stop them. Stop them.
Last question, Lauren.
LG: All right. “Do you guys think Zuck’s really going to run for president next election?” When he’s done milking cows, is he going to run for president of the United States?
No, absolutely not.
KS: No. I don’t think so.
LG: Okay. Why not?
KS: I wouldn’t put it past ... Because I think they’re mistaking his interest in things that are very Mark Zuckerbergian, which he does every year, unusual things, with his very earnestness, he’s a very earnest person. We make fun of it, the livestock, but he really cares about connecting with people.
If you look up ... The thing that touched all this off was the language in the securities filing. It didn’t say that he was going to run for office, it was essentially saying that he would serve in some capacity in government.
KS: Right. Yeah.
There are ways to serve in government, whether it’s a brief one-month tour of duty or whatnot, that don’t require you to be a federal office holder. When I read that, and at the time we were thinking that Hillary Clinton might be President, I thought to myself, “I wonder if he was thinking of advising that administration in some capacity.”
KS: On government reform or something.
I don’t think that he was, but that was more along the lines of what I thought they were telegraphing.
KS: I agree. I think you’d see Sheryl Sandberg running much more than you’d see him running.
KS: I do think she eventually probably will, when her children are older, when she isn’t ... Not immediately. She would have run for governor of California if she was interested in getting into the cycle now, but I think she’d be more likely than he would. It’s not clear where she would. She has said she isn’t, but I’m not so ... I think a lot of people feel like maybe in five to 10 years’ time she might do that.
LG: You pressed her on that at that women’s conference.
KS: I did, she didn’t ...
LG: And she said,”"You heard it from me and I’m saying no.” She was very adamant that she’s not [running].
KS: I meant this election cycle.
LG: Yeah, at this time.
KS: That was going to the Hillary Clinton campaign, too, I think it was.
The Treasury Department, we were talking about ...
KS: Yeah. She was talking about serving in the thing. I think she could run. If anyone from that company runs ...
It’s going to be her.
KS: ... it’s her, it’s going to be her. Anyone else? Would you want to ... Anyone else running for president? Howard Schultz, whom I understand is meeting with people. Who else?
I am not thinking about 2020 right now, I can’t do it.
KS: You’re going to have to.
I cannot do it.
KS: Come on. Who would be good? Who would you like?
I’ve got to get through 2017.
KS: What internet ... There’s going to be an internet candidate, there’s going to be...
I don’t know if I think there’s going to be an internet candidate.
KS: Well, I guess Howard Schultz has been in the digital realm because he’s a VC and stuff like that, too, so I’d say Howard Schultz.
I guess Bob Iger is the one ... He’s not a Silicon Valley guy, right?
I think that’s the one everybody’s watching. I’m not, but ...
I don’t want to think about it, but we’ll see.
KS: Anybody else? You see anybody else?
Right now, the only people who have really made their intentions clear are the folks on Capitol Hill who are posturing.
Other than that, I think it’s just too soon to know.
KS: Too soon.
LG: Do you think Meg Whitman would ever run again?
Do I think Meg Whitman? No.
KS: No. I’m giving a no on that one, too.
Yeah. Yeah, I don’t ... That was not a pleasant campaign.
KS: And losing 30 million bucks.
Yeah, there’s also that.
KS: No, I don’t think so. She could serve in an administration, though. You could see her being tapped for a bunch of stuff.
Well, certainly not this administration because she hates Donald Trump.
KS: No, she was very adamant against him.
KS: All right. Well, Tony, you have done a great job. Get back to work.
Okay, thanks guys.
KS: He’s got a lot to do. You’ve got a lot to do, there’s a lot going on, it should be really interesting anyway and it’s a really important time for Silicon Valley. We’re lucky enough to have Tony working for us at this incredible juncture in Silicon Valley history, so buckle up, Silicon Valley, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, I think. Correct.
LG: Tony, thank you so much for joining us.
Of course. Thanks.
LG: Everyone, follow Tony on Twitter for basically just a live feed of all of the thoughts that pop into his head throughout the day, because he’s very candid on Twitter.
KS: He is.
LG: And he is not a bot.
KS: He’s not.
It’s a cry for help. It’s one large cry for help.
KS: I would tell him to dial it back, but then I’d have to look at my own Twitter feed, so I won’t. That’s @TonyRomm. It’s true. I was bad today, I was on a train, it was terrible. Anyway, Tony, thank you for coming. It’s @TonyRomm. You’ll be tweeting from the session, I guess.
Yep, I’ll be in D.C.
KS: You’ll be tweeting, great, and doing whatever, doing all the coverage.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.