Facebook has been happy to keep congressional investigators focused on the Russian-bought online ads that helped sway voters in last year’s election — despite the many other ways that fake messages and bogus accounts spread on the dark side of social media.
But that may be about to end: Facebook, Twitter and Google are preparing for hearings this week where lawmakers are expected to grill the companies about the broad reach that foreign actors achieved through fake accounts and deliberate misinformation, a topic that encompasses far more than the 3,000 paid political ads that Facebook disclosed last month.
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Some lawmakers are already pressing for more details about so-called organic content, including unpaid posts from thousands of fake, automated and hijacked user accounts. Those questions could require Facebook to divulge more details about the priceless proprietary algorithms it uses to decide what messages its users see.
Top Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday for a wealth of additional data about Russian activity on its networks, including all organic content and ads “targeted to any part of the United States” by any users who “may be connected in some way to Russia.” The California senator also sent an extensive data request to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, similarly requested a meeting with Google, Facebook and Twitter to discuss both their advertising and broader content management policies. In a letter, Pallone said their platforms have become increasingly powerful and the companies have taken on a “quasi-governmental role” in determining what content is appropriate.
Ads are the “easier problem” to solve, a source close to the Senate probes told POLITICO. Spotlighting paid ads benefits Facebook because it limits the discussion to a relatively small slice of the possible malicious activity that Russia is believed to have engaged in on social media platforms, said a second source, a former Senate staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
“I keep learning about how extensive this ecosystem is and the inter-relationship between paid ads, fake accounts, the ability of the bots to push traffic,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters Thursday.
Warner also indicated that regulations will be necessary to address the problem. “The notion of self-policing alone, I just don’t think that’s it, because it would simply move the bad actors onto sites that aren’t,” he said.
Representatives of all three companies are due to testify at a Senate Judiciary hearing Tuesday on “Russian disinformation online,” and at separate House and Senate intelligence committee hearings Wednesday on social media, Russia and the election.
As part of its playbook for shaping the narrative of the Russia probes, Facebook focused on the issue of online advertising when it met with representatives of the Senate intelligence panel, according to a source close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the inquiry. The former Senate aide also described a broader perception on Capitol Hill that tech companies are steering the discussion toward ads.
Facebook offered a glimpse at seven problematic ads during a private Hill briefing last month and, after pressure from lawmakers, agreed to turn over 3,000 of them to investigators. It separately disclosed to the public that the Russia-linked ads cost about $100,000, a figure that drew widespread media attention.
Twitter then followed its lead and presented some similar information to lawmakers’ offices.
Both companies have since announced internal plans to require greater oversight of political and issues-based ads — pre-emptive strikes that could blunt recently introduced legislation to force greater disclosure. And Twitter announced Thursday that it was dropping all ads from Kremlin-funded English-language media outlets RT and Sputnik.
But advertising is just one part of the far-reaching Russian influence campaign that the probe has documented so far — one that also included hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, along with shaping public discourse through fake news stories targeted at impressionable Americans.
While Congress’ legislative response so far has consisted of bills targeting social media ads, this week’s hearings will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to press beyond ads for the first time in a public forum. Facebook, Google — which owns YouTube — and Twitter will probably face questions about why their platforms seemed to so easily facilitate the spread of misinformation and what the companies are doing to prevent future election-meddling.
“I got a lot of [questions], and I’m going to ask them all at the open hearing,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a brief interview. He played coy on specifics. “I want to save it so it’s a surprise for everybody.”
Other lawmakers said they plan to probe the dissemination of fake news, fake Facebook accounts that impersonated people or were actually bots, and the use of online trolls to promote divisive messages.
One issue that could plague the company is the extent to which the Russian entities created fake organic content on both Facebook and Twitter and used those posts to sow chaos in the election and drive undecided potential voters away from Hillary Clinton and into the Donald Trump camp. Facebook has committed to giving material on organic content to the investigators.
Analysts, including some former U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials and congressional officials familiar with the probes, said Facebook has provided more information about suspicious organic content than Twitter, and that Senate and House Intelligence committee investigators are only in the early stages of looking into that issue.
Besides creating fake Facebook and Twitter personas and accounts outright, the Russians probably also hijacked potentially thousands of others created by real users that were dormant or suspended. Another likely tactic was to coordinate messaging through thousands of the accounts and automated bots.
“We have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent this kind of abuse on our platform,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement, declining to comment on whether the company focused investigators on Russia-bought ads. “That’s why we’re helping investigators — sharing what we know so they can get the full picture of what happened and give that assessment to the American public.”
Facebook compiled a report on misinformation for Congress members in April, although that report did not mention Russia explicitly, aside from referencing the January report from the director of national intelligence that concluded the Kremlin had sought to sway the election.
The three companies met privately last month with members of the intelligence committees and their staffs, with several lawmakers later describing the briefings as a disappointment and openly questioning whether Facebook, Twitter and Google grasp the serious threat that foreign interference poses to U.S. democracy. Warner said at the time that Facebook conducted a narrow search and called the ads that Facebook presented “the tip of the iceberg.”
The committee did not explicitly focus on ads in its initial queries to the tech companies before those meetings, according to the source familiar with the investigation, who said the emphasis by the companies serves as a bit of a “red herring.”
The House and Senate bills calling for greater regulation of online political ads would not be the worst-case scenario for the companies: As much as Facebook and Google resist bureaucrats treading into their business, the proposed rules would apply to a relatively small portion of their total advertising. They would leave larger swaths of their network untouched, while giving companies and lawmakers a concrete change to point to.
One of the top questions the Senate Intelligence Committee has going into its hearing is about how many people encountered unsponsored content from fake Russia-linked accounts, the source familiar with the investigation said. That would mean looking not just at paid ads, but at content those accounts generated in the form of posts shared with followers.
Warner told POLITICO that fake accounts are also of prime interest to the committee, especially after the company was able to detect so many ahead of this year’s French presidential election. Facebook said it removed more than 30,000 fake accounts used to spread misinformation during the French election, yet it has only shared findings identifying 470 Russian-linked ones related to interference during the U.S. election.
Zuckerberg has also faced pressure to pin down the locations of “troll farms” that are helping generate fake Facebook accounts and the content that’s tied to them, the source said.
More broadly, there’s a sense among lawmakers that the 3,000 ads tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency troll farm may be far from the only content responsible for helping perpetrate this kind of interference.
“I want to figure out if this was the universe of problem accounts or if they just used such a low bar that this is what popped up easily,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told POLITICO in an interview.
As congressional investigators dig into how misinformation spreads and whether companies can keep it in check, the door to potential government regulation cracks further open. That’s dangerous territory for Facebook and other technology companies, which have long enjoyed a wide road to expand and innovate without bumping up against the federal bureaucracy. To that end, Facebook has been quick to promote steps it’s taking to self-regulate, including plans to hire people to manually examine ads that are political in nature.
After Zuckerberg initially said the idea of fake news on Facebook influencing U.S. voters was “crazy,” the company has shifted its tone and sought to convey it takes the issue seriously. Zuckerberg’s deputy, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, made a two-day charm offensive pilgrimage to Washington this month.
Attendees said those meetings were tense at times, but Sandberg conveyed the message that the company treated lawmakers’ concerns seriously and was taking internal steps to address them.
In June, Facebook launched a “Hard Questions” blog where the company discloses to its employees and the public how it grapples with challenges such as hate speech or terrorism. Hamilton Place Strategies, one of the public affairs shops Facebook has retained, has been working with the company on the blog. Facebook has also tapped political communications firms TSD Communications and Definers Public Affairs to help navigate the Russia investigation.
Facebook also devoted a slice of its $2.85 million lobbying budget in the third quarter — a 41 percent increase over what it spent in the same three-month period last year — to topics like “platform integrity” and “platform transparency,” though it did not specifically reference the Russia investigations in its filing. At least one of its outside firms, Stewart Strategies and Solutions, has been tapped to work on the investigation. The firm did not respond to requests for comment.
As Facebook more publicly acknowledges its role in the election controversy, lawmakers say it appears to be showing more openness to oversight, if only because the writing appears to be on the wall.
“I hope Facebook will be [open to legislation], because they have proved to be increasingly receptive and reasonable,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a brief interview. “They are much more constructively engaged than ever before, but the proof will be in their substantive positions.”
Nancy Scola and Ashley Gold contributed to this report.
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