In Congress’s first chance to hear publicly from executives at Facebook, Google, and Twitter since the companies revealed that they sold political ads to Russian trolls, one thing became abundantly clear: Tech platforms have grown so powerful that adequately policing them is a near-impossible task.
Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google’s head of information security and law enforcement Richard Salgado testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday, the first of three hearings for tech executives this week. The hearing was supposed to be about “working with tech to find solutions” to extremist content and the spread of Russian disinformation online. But after more than two hours of questioning, both the executives and their senator inquisitors were long on concerns and short on solutions.
Case in point: In light of Facebook’s disclosure that Russian trolls purchased 3,000 political ads during the 2016 election and posted 80,000 pieces of content that reached as many as 126 million Americans, Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana asked whether either North Korea or China had purchased ads on Facebook. The company’s general counsel said that he wasn’t aware of any such ads.
“How could you be aware?” Kennedy replied incredulously. He noted that anyone can create a series of shell companies to hide the financial backers behind a given ad, making it difficult to see the true origins of the money. “The truth of the matter is you have 5 million advertisers that change every month, every minute, probably every second,” Kennedy said. “You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is today, right now.”
“To your question about seeing behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no,” said Stretch.
The hearing was nominally about Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election. But it was also a proxy for growing concerns in many corners of the US that internet companies have grown too big, too powerful, and too rich. Senators’ questions came with ample finger-wagging, as the committee wondered how companies that are wildly successful and employ some of the world’s top technical talent failed to see these threats coming. As Kennedy put it, “I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me.”
Beyond concerns about Russian-sponsored ads, for example, the tech companies also must contend with a flood of other content, coming from all corners of the globe, in a country where freedom of expression is valued and protected. Take too ham-fisted an approach to monitoring political posts, and they risk being accused of, as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz put it Tuesday, putting their “thumb on the scale of political debate.” But turn a blind eye to political chatter, and they risk allowing malicious networks to disrupt democratic elections.
While Facebook bore the brunt of Senators’ questioning, Twitter revealed some staggering statistics about Russia’s organic reach on its platform last year. In just two and a half months, Russian bot accounts tweeted 1.4 million times, yielding 288 million impressions. The fact that such coordinated campaigns went unchecked underscores the value Twitter has put on free speech.
The exchange over the potential use of shell companies to purchase ads showed how loopholes that have allowed dark money to flow into the American political system are magnified online. Sussing out who exactly paid for a political television ad backed by a Super PAC isn’t easy. But the sheer scale of ads purchased on platforms like Facebook makes it practically impossible. Facebook and other platforms used their technological prowess during the campaign to identify malicious actors and advertisers that might be connected to foreign entities, but those tools can miss the mark. That’s how Facebook ended up selling political ads to Russian entities that paid for the ads in Russian rubles, which ought to be an obvious red flag.
That proved a particularly sensitive issue for Democratic Sen. Al Franken, who challenged Stretch to state definitively that Facebook would not sell political ads to anyone paying in a foreign currency. The Federal Election Campaign Act, after all, bans foreign financing of American elections. Stretch declined, arguing that currency is just one of many signals the company will take into consideration when assessing an advertiser’s legitimacy.
“We’re not going to permit political advertising by foreign actors,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure we’re addressing all forms of abuse.”
“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better,” Franken retorted.
Complicating matters, many members of Congress investigating these issues appear to be unclear about precisely what these companies do and how they do it. That surfaced in questions posed by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Sheldon Whitehouse on the topic of voter-suppression tactics. Blumenthal showed the committee a widely circulated tweet showing comedian Aziz Ansari holding a Photoshopped sign claiming Americans could vote from home. Blumenthal and Whitehouse pressed Twitter’s Edgett to tell them exactly how many people tried to vote by text, as the tweet suggested people do.
Edgett said Twitter would have no way of knowing the number, which would require phone companies to analyze the private texts of their customers. “Let me request that you endeavor as best you can do get us this information,” Blumenthal insisted.
That leaves us with tech companies that woke up to this threat far too late attempting to explain themselves to investigators who, in some cases, fundamentally misunderstand the platforms’ ability to address it. It’s little wonder then that those solutions Congress seeks are proving to be elusive.
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