Openly recognizing their companies’ past failures in rare displays of modesty, Facebook and Twitter executives touted new efforts to combat state-sponsored propaganda across their platforms before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, acknowledging that the task is often “overwhelming” and proving a massive drain on their resources.
Despite frequent and contradictory remarks by President Donald Trump, America’s top national security officials have continued to warn of ongoing foreign influence operations aimed at the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections. Weeks ago, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that U.S. officials had been targeted using traditional tradecraft, and that the bureau had detected criminal efforts to suppress voting and provide illegal campaign contributions.
Among other tactics employed by foreign rivals, senior officials at FBI, Homeland Security, and U.S. Cyber Command cited open-ended efforts to spread disinformation on social media, directly targeting U.S. voters, as well as ongoing cyberattacks against the nation’s voting infrastructure. “Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis,” said Wray, “whether it’s election season or not.”
In opening remarks on Wednesday, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, acknowledged that Facebook had been “too slow to act” in 2016 against the Kremlin-backed campaign that was designed to sow discord among American voters. “That’s on us,” she said, describing Moscow’s meddling as “completely unacceptable” and a violation of Facebook’s values “and of the country we love.”
“We’re investing for the long term because security is never a finished job,” Sandberg added, noting that Facebook has increased its security and communications staff to 20,000 people, doubling it over the past year. “Our adversaries are determined, creative, and well-funded,” she said. “But we are even more determined—and we will continue to fight back.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, portrayed the matter as not just a threat to democracy, but as a threat to the overall health and security of his business, saying that above all else, Twitter’s goal is to serve a “global public conversation.” Dorsey also acknowledged a range of threats faced by his company, including widespread abuse, manipulation by foreign powers, and “malicious automation” (i.e., bots).
“Any attempts to undermine the integrity of our service is antithetical to our fundamental rights,” he said, calling freedom of expression a “core tenant” upon which the Twitter is based.
Google, which was also asked to appear before the committee, was chided by Democrats and Republicans alike for declining to send one of its top executives. Instead of offering to send CEO Sundar Pichai or Google co-founder Larry Page, the company offered Kent Walker, its senior vice president of global affairs, who published his would-be “testimony” on his blog on Tuesday. An empty chair was left at the table next to Sandberg and Dorsey to signify Google’s absence.
“Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s vice chairman.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, likewise took shots at Google for skipping the hearing. “They’re not here today. Maybe its because they’re arrogant,” he said, also suggesting that Google may have avoided the hearing due to a report published by BuzzFeed News late Tuesday evening, outlining successful efforts by alleged Kremlin-linked trolls to purchase advertisements on the websites of several media brands, including CNN, HuffPost, and the Daily Beast.
Recognizing that technology often evolves too quickly for regulators to keep pace, Chairman Richad Burr said that recent arguments over whether social media companies should be considered “content publishers” were counterproductive. “I think that ambiguity has given rise to something of a convenient identity crisis, whereby judgments about what is and isn’t allowable on social media are too episodic, too reactive, and too unstructured,” he said.
“The information your platforms disseminate changes minds. It hardens opinions. It helps people make sense of the world,” Burr continued. “When you control that, or even influence a little of it, you’re in a position to win wars without firing a shot. That’s how serious this is.”
Questioned by Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, over whether Facebook or Twitter had seen evidence that Russia or Iran had “supported, coordinated, or attempted to amplify” any online hoaxes, Dorsey and Sandberg seemed unsure of what precisely constitutes a hoax. “We certainly have evidence to show to show they have utilized our systems and gamed our systems to amplify information,” Dorsey responded. “I’m not sure—in terms of the definition of hoax, in this case—but it is likely.”
Sandberg recalled Facebook’s takedown of 650 pages and accounts linked to Iran two weeks ago, saying some had been linked to state-owned media. “Some of them were pretending to be free press and they weren’t free press,” she said. “It depends how you define a ‘hoax,’ but I think we’re certainly seeing them use misinformation campaigns.”
Twitter likewise removed 284 accounts late last month linked to Iran, for engaging in what it called “coordinated manipulation.”
When asked by Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, what steps Twitter had taken to notify users that had been potentially duped by fake accounts imitating Americans—naming specifically the defunct Twitter account that masqueraded as the Tennessee Republican Party—Dorsey acknowledged that his company had dropped the ball in this area.
“We simply haven’t done enough,” he said. “In this particular case, we didn’t have enough communication going out, in terms of what was seen and what was tweeted and what people were falling into.”
“We need to meet people where they are,” added Dorsey. “If we determine that people were subject to any falsehoods or manipulation of any sort, we do need to provide them the full context of that and this is an area of improvement for us and something we’re going to be diligent to fix.”
Dorsey will also appear later today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he’s expected to firmly refute claims by Republican lawmakers that Twitter has censored accounts expressing right-wing views.
Additional reporting by Bryan Menegus, Rhett Jones.