Russian ads targeted issues, not candidates, social media execs say

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Russian-backed mischief-makers and disinformation accounts were a tiny fraction of the online conversation leading up to last year’s presidential election, and most of their efforts sowed discord over hot-button issues such as immigration and guns rather than attacking specific candidates, top social media executives told Congress on Tuesday.

What attacks they did launch were directed more at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton ahead of the election, but they pivoted to undercut Donald Trump once the election was over, the executives said in their first public testimony to Congress about meddling in the campaign.

Facebook, Twitter and Google said they already had taken some steps to try to prevent foreign-backed ads in future campaigns and vowed to crack down on bogus accounts spreading misinformation. But the tech executives acknowledged there are limits to what they can do to referee debates or stories shared among their users.

“We saw this concerted effort to sow division and discord in the wake of the election, and now-President Trump’s election, we saw a lot of activity about fomenting discord about the validity of his election,” said Colin Stretch, general counsel for Facebook. “It continued until we disabled the accounts.”

Lawmakers said the testimony was a wake-up call for the country, exposing weaknesses in last year’s election process and openings that terrorists use to win recruits through the online platforms.

“What we did today is discover how vulnerable we are as a nation,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who convened the hearing.

The companies recounted steps they’ve already taken to cull Russian-backed operatives from their platforms, said they immediately strip terrorism-related content when they find it and vowed more transparency going forward.

But Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, said he was stunned that the companies weren’t able to figure out the problem before the election.

“People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They are political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time,” Mr. Franken said. “You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go, ‘Hmmm, those two data points spell out something bad’?”

Facebook, which has acknowledged running some 3,000 ads from Russian-backer operatives, most of them paid for in Russia’s currency, said it was “a signal we should have been alert to.” But neither Facebook nor Google would commit to refusing all political ads paid for in rubles, saying they wanted to make sure that was the correct way to spot inappropriate political advertising.

Mr. Stretch said the best approach is to require all political advertising online to abide by the same sorts of disclosure rules that govern broadcast advertisements, which must contain disclosures and must be available for inspection.

But none of the companies Tuesday would go so far as to endorse bipartisan legislation kicking around Capitol Hill, dubbed the Honest Ads Act, that would require the disclosures as a matter of federal law.

Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, questioned how the online platforms can verify the identities of their advertisers, particularly when Facebook claims more than 5 million advertisers every month.

Mr. Stretch said they search for technical signals to spot potential bad actors.

The executives will be back before Congress on Wednesday with two other hearings before other committees that are also probing Russian involvement in the election.

Facebook, which had previously disclosed some 3,000 ads bought for $100,000 by a Russian-backed operation, revealed a much broader scope of exposure Tuesday. The company said some 80,000 Russian-spawned news feed posts reached 29 million people, and because of likes and shares that content may have been seen by 126 million people from 2015 to 2017.

Still, that amounted to just four-thousandths of a percent of all Facebook content, the company said.

Instagram, a Facebook property, deleted 170 accounts responsible for 120,000 posts, Mr. Stretch said.

Twitter, meanwhile, said it had identified more than 2,750 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, which was a main avenue for Russian attempts to influence the election. Of the 131,000 tweets posted from those accounts during the election time frame, 9 percent were election-related.

Going beyond the IRA, Twitter has identified nearly 37,000 accounts that generated automated election-related content and had indications they could be Russian-linked. They posted 1.4 million tweets, generating 288 million impressions from Twitter users.

Sean J. Edgett, the company’s acting general counsel, said that was still less than 1 percent of Twitter’s election-related tweets.

When some accounts tried to persuade Democrats to cast ballots by text — an impossibility — the reaction from Twitter was swift, with 10 times as many tweets discrediting the bad information, he said.

Google said it was immune to much of the meddling, saying it found only a “relatively limited amount of activity.”

Democrats told the companies not to try to minimize what happened in the election.

“I don’t think anybody can say this sort of content did not have an effect on the outcome,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hawaii Democrat.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, recounted a news report of an advertiser who said for a small investment he was able to earn 27 million views for one video.

“Stop making the argument that because it’s a small number we shouldn’t be concerned,” Mr. Whitehouse said.

“I do not want in any way to suggest this is not a big deal. This is a huge deal,” Mr. Stretch replied.

While Republicans said the meddling was intended to spawn dissatisfaction in American politics overall, Democrats insisted Mr. Trump was the chief beneficiary.

Mr. Whitehouse kicked off the hearing by accusing the Trump team of attempts to work with Russia.

Facebook said it hasn’t seen any evidence of efforts to meddle ahead of governor’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey next week.

The online platforms also said the interference at the national level from 2015 through 2017 appeared to be coming from Russia, not other adversaries such as North Korea and Iran. But the companies said the possibility is there.

“The Internet is borderless,” Mr. Stretch said.

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