The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have asked executives from major tech companies to appear in open hearings tied to the committees’ Russia investigations. The requests follow a week in which Facebook, Google, and Twitter have faced intense scrutiny over foreign ad campaigns that sought to influence Americans during the 2016 election.
The Senate Intelligence hearing will likely take place on November 1st. The invitations to appear before the panel were confirmed by a Senate aide with knowledge of the requests; Facebook and Google likewise confirmed receipt of the invitations. Representatives Mike Conaway and Adam Schiff announced the House hearing publicly in a joint statement that did not name the tech companies involved.
“In the coming month, we will hold an open hearing with representatives from tech companies in order to understand how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election,” the senators said.
Facebook has taken the brunt of the lawmaker’s focus, having announced last week at least $150,000 in Facebook ads were purchased by Russians during the election. Around $100,000 worth of ads were paid for by a St. Petersburg-based company with known Kremlin ties; the ads were spread out across 470 unique accounts. Another 2,000 ads were found to originate from Russian language accounts using US internet addresses. Facebook has agreed to deliver the ads for review by both the House and Senate intelligence committees. Twitter is scheduled to brief Congressional staffers tomorrow about Russian influence campaigns on its platform.
On Wednesday, The Daily Beast reported that an account impersonating an American Muslim organization was among the accounts deactivated by Facebook “as part of its acknowledgement of substantial inauthentic network activity linked to Russia.” The page, which amassed 268,000 followers, was used to spread memes falsely claiming that Sen. John McCain—an ardent Kremlin foe—had help to bolster the terrorist group ISIS. Other posts purportedly claimed that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton “admits #America created, funded and armed Al Qaeda ISIS terrorists.” (Facebook declined to comment for the Beast’s story, but did not challenge its findings.)
Many of the fake Russian ads described so far appear at first blush to be supportive of Clinton’s campaign; but their true purpose was apparently to agitate conservative voters. The Washington Post reported this week that some of the ads tied to the Russian influence effort sought to inflame resentment toward Clinton by highlighting the Muslim women who supported her. What’s more, posts attributed to the Russians reportedly promoted Black Lives Matter, while simultaneously separate ads—presumably targeting a different demographic—portrayed the group as “a rising political threat.”
Democrats appear divided over how to address what is increasingly seen as a growing threat by a foreign rival to the US election process. Sen. Mark Warner, the senate panel’s ranking member, has drafted legislation with Sen. Amy Klobuchar that would require Facebook and other social networks to disclose who pays for political ads and which audiences are being targeted. Another group of Democrats, including Sen. Ron Wyden, who also sits on the panel, have asked the Federal Election Commission to take control and impose new rules for political ads online—an idea that Facebook as vehemently opposed in the past.
Neither solution enjoys bipartisan support and there’s currently only one Democrat on the Federal Election Commission. That would appear to leave executives like Mark Zuckerberg almost entirely in control of how online political ads are handled—even those surreptitiously launched by foreign actors with the aim of undermining American presidential campaigns.
Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook would increase its vetting of political ads and require them to be accompanied by disclosures revealing what page financed them. But currently, the company is under no legal obligation to do so.