Facebook, Twitter: Russian actors sought to undermine Trump after election
Lawyers representing Facebook and Twitter revealed that Russian groups on their social networks tried to delegitimize Donald Trump’s presidency after the election.
Politico reports that lawyers from Facebook and Twitter told a Senate Judiciary panel on Tuesday that Russian-linked agents on their social networks following election day in November 2016 attempted to undermine President Trump’s victory. Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch outlined to the Senate Judiciary panel how a Russian trolling group known as the Internet Research Agency generated content after November 8th focusing on “fomenting discord about the validity of [Trump’s] election.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked at the hearing, “During the election, they were trying to create discord between Americans, most of it directed against Clinton. After the election you saw Russian-tied groups and organizations trying to undermine President Trump’s legitimacy. Is that what you saw on Facebook?”
Stretch and Twitter general counsel Sean Edgette confirmed that Graham’s description was “accurate.”
James Lewis, an international cyber policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that Russians’ anti-Trump misinformation campaign fits with the Kremlin’s information warfare strategy.
“Their goal is to create confusion and dissent. The target is the U.S. and NATO, not any particular candidate. They just want chaos,” Lewis said. “It went from being a grudge match against Clinton to what they thought was a priceless opportunity to inflict harm.”
**Top lawyers from Facebook and Twitter **said Tuesday that Russian-linked posts and advertisements placed on the social networks after Election Day sought to sow doubt about President Donald Trump's victory.
Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch told a Senate Judiciary panel that content generated by a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency after Nov. 8 centered on “fomenting discord about the validity of [Trump’s] election.” That's a change from Russia's pre-election activity, which was largely centered on trying to denigrate Hillary Clinton, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a January report.
“During the election, they were trying to create discord between Americans, most of it directed against Clinton. After the election you saw Russian-tied groups and organizations trying to undermine President Trump’s legitimacy. Is that what you saw on Facebook?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked at the hearing.
Stretch and his Twitter counterpart, Sean Edgett, called that an "accurate" statement.
The disclosure opened a new wrinkle in the continuing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which has increasingly focused on the role of the biggest internet companies. Tuesday's hearing marks the first time representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter have testified publicly about what they've learned about Kremlin meddling on their platforms in the presidential campaign. The companies face additional lawmaker scrutiny Wednesday with back-to-back hearings by the Senate and House Intelligence committees.
James Lewis, an international cyber policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the revelation about Russian anti-Trump activity on social media post-election fits with typical Kremlin information-warfare efforts.
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“Their goal is to create confusion and dissent. The target is the U.S. and NATO, not any particular candidate. They just want chaos," Lewis said. "It went from being a grudge match against Clinton to what they thought was a priceless opportunity to inflict harm."
The Silicon Valley giants have been slow to reckon with Russian use of social media to undermine American democracy. Days after the election — amid criticism that Facebook allowed the spread of hoax stories and misinformation — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was a "pretty crazy idea" that fake news on Facebook influenced the vote. But as reports have piled up about Russian manipulation, Zuckerberg last month said he regretted being dismissive about the concerns, though he continued to argue that Facebook had a "far bigger" positive effect by giving people and candidates a place to communicate.
Democrats at the hearing homed in on the harm done by online disinformation to their candidate, Clinton, when the election was still up for grabs.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) took Facebook’s general counsel to task for an ad featuring a kneeling soldier that ran during the campaign arguing that the Constitution should be amended to take control of the Army from Clinton should she be elected president.
“This ad is nothing short of the Russian government directly interfering in our elections, lying to American citizens, duping folks who believe they are joining and supporting a group that is about veterans and based in Texas when in fact it is paid for in rubles by Russians,” Coons said, adding, “Should Facebook be a platform that foreign adversaries can use to run political ads?”
Stretch said the "advertisement has no place on Facebook" and pledged the company is "committed to preventing that sort of behavior from occurring again on our platform."
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) also took aim at Facebook.
“How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its user[s], somehow not make the connection that electoral ads — paid for in rubles — were coming from Russia?" he said. "Those are two data points: American political ads and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”
In a sign of how seriously the companies are taking this week's hearings, Facebook, Twitter and Google all included in their testimony new disclosures about the extent of Russian activity on their sites. Facebook said up to 126 million people — a figure that represents nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population — viewed posts planted by the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based troll farm. That's more than 10 times the audience that was reached by Russian-linked Facebook paid ads the company earlier revealed to congressional investigators.
But the companies still appear eager to shield their top executives from the gathering storm in Washington. Facebook and Twitter sent their general counsels to Tuesday's hearing, and Google sent its director of information security. Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who recently held a series of closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, were not in attendance. Facebook scheduled its third-quarter earnings report for Wednesday, the same day as the Senate and House Intelligence hearings.
Here are five other key moments from the hearing:
- First look at the fake Russian ads
Tuesday's hearing offered the public its first look at political ads that Facebook and Twitter have identified as being purchased by the Russia-sponsored Internet Research Agency. The companies provided copies of the ads to congressional investigators earlier this month and revealed yesterday that they were seen by millions of users in the U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) showed an advertisement depicting an altered image of comedian Aziz Ansari holding a sign deceptively claiming voters could cast ballots via text from home. Meanwhile, Coons decried a sponsored image of a kneeling solider with the text "Hillary Clinton has a 69 percent disapproval rate among all veterans" overlaid on top. Facebook has said publicly that lawmakers should decide whether to make all 3,000 Russia-backed ads it has found available for public review.
- Facebook not sure whether Russian ads swayed election
Facebook wasn’t able to offer much in the form of a definitive answer when Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked the company if it felt like content on its platform had an effect on the election. “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?” Hirono asked. Stretch dodged in response. “We’re not well-positioned to judge why any one person or an entire electorate voted as it did,” he said.
- Facebook won’t say no to accepting election-related foreign money
Franken, in an especially fiery exchange, asked Twitter, Google and Facebook if they would commit to not accepting foreign money payments on election-related advertisements, saying he wanted a simple “yes” or “no” answer from the platforms — and wanted to know why Facebook didn’t catch Russian agents purchasing ads sooner. Stretch said he hesitated on the foreign currency question because “it’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies. So it’s a signal but not enough.” Edgett gave a quick “yes” to Franken, and Google Law Enforcement and Information Security Director Richard Salgado said Google would need to have a good enough “signal” that the transaction was illegal to keep it from going through. “Foreigners can’t use money in our campaign, you know that?” Franken said.
- Democrats — allies of tech — attack their friends
For Democrats, who have for years had a largely warm and productive relationship with liberal-leaning Silicon Valley, the hearing represented a sharp break. Several members seized upon the chance to unleash on the company reps their simmering frustrations that the tech industry’s tools -- so often pitched as the means for making the world a better place -- had harmed their nominee, perhaps even fatally. Blumenthal highlighted widely shared posts on Twitter that incorrectly claimed that voters could cast ballots for Clinton simply by tweeting. “Do you know how many thought they voted but in fact were fooled?,” Blumenthal asked Edgett, who said he did not know.
- No support for Honest Ads Act
Not a single one of the three tech giants would commit to supporting Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.)’s Honest Ads Act, which would require disclosures about political advertising on their platforms. All three have rolled out and touted work to independently address the issue of ads, following the introduction of the bill. “We certainly support the goals of the legislation and would like to work through the nuances to make it work for all of us,” Salgado said. Their answers prompted Klobuchar to draw attention to the lack of external oversight on these actions. “Just to clarify, while you are taking responsibility for a lot of what happened here, and trying to make some changes, there wouldn’t be an outside enforcer for any of these policies, right?”
Cory Bennett, Steven Overly and Li Zhou contributed to this report.
StevieRay Hansen Investigative Reporter for SrhNews.com and HNewsWire.com
Tags Politics Tagged Under: Tags: Birth Pains,Facebook won’t say no to accepting election-related foreign money,lawyers from Facebook and Twitter, End Times
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