Protecting Democracy from Technology

Social media giants, like many of us, have yet to truly make sense of Russia's influence on U.S. voters.

(Courtesy Photo)

Facebook, Google, and Twitter visited Capitol Hill last week after lawmakers called upon them in order to understand how Russian disinformation during the 2016 election found success on their sites — and how to prevent it during elections to come.

But in a show of priorities — intentional or not — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t attend, as he was trick-or-treating. Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also declined to testify. Instead, they sent their legal counsel.

This message has been prevalent in the aftermath of the presidential election, when Zuckerberg asserted that it was “crazy” to think Facebook could have affected the outcome. This September, he apologized, saying he had been dismissive and regretted the statement.

Despite the tech CEOs sticking their heads in the sand, they are being asked to answer for their platforms’ flaws. What came out of the three hearings spread over two days was a show of bipartisan frustration from members of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and from a judiciary subcommittee, who both pointed fingers at tech representatives.

And rightly so. Over and over, these companies promise they’ll do better, but they’ve been tepid in committing to any legislation or regulatory tactics — decisions that, at this rate, they could be locked out of. Headlines have streamed out regarding Russian political use of Google, Facebook, and Twitter during the election, but the picture isn’t completely painted.

In January, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency agreed that the Russian government took direct orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to hack key Democratic players, leak troves of emails intended to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and undermine faith in U.S. elections. They also found that hundreds of paid Russian social media users flooded the web with anti-Clinton messages.

On Facebook, about 470 fake Russian accounts bought $100,000 in political ads between June 2015 and May 2017, focusing on social issues rather than specific candidates. Those accounts generated about 3,000 ads, while another 2,200 political ads appeared to originate from Russia, although they weren’t associated with a known effort.

Before the hearings — and as Special Counsel Robert Mueller stole the show with multiple indictments — Facebook revealed that 126 million people in the U.S. may have seen posts made by agents linked to the Russian government.

The release of this information is overdue. Until recently, publicly available knowledge stopped at vague references to Russia-linked digital ads, cleverly crafted to amplify social wedge issues and meant to divide American voters during the 2016 election.

One 2017 study by Wordstream found click-through rates on Facebook average 0.90 percent, but Russia’s ads on Facebook were much higher. One ad Facebook shared had a 19.7 percent click-through rate and included a meme that depicted Satan saying, “If I win, Clinton wins!” while he arm-wrestles with Jesus, who says, “Not if I can help it!”

Another ad posted by a fake group of Russian origin called Heart of Texas blamed Clinton and former President Barack Obama for allowing “rapists, drug dealers, human traffickers, and others” past the border. The group paid 500 Russian rubles — about $8 — for an ad with a 24 percent click-through rate.

Google, too, said it found accounts with ties to the Internet Research Agency — an organization affiliated with the Russian government — that spent $4,700 to appear in the company’s search and display ads. They also found 18 Russian channels on YouTube with political videos in English that garnered more than 300,000 views from June 2015 — though Google determined the channels didn’t target American viewers.

In Twitter’s written testimony, the company said it discovered more than 2,700 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency that posted approximately 131,000 tweets between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, 2016. It also found more than 36,000 additional automated accounts linked to Russia that posted 1.4 million election tweets, garnering about 288 million views.

But Twitter emphasized to the committee that this accounts for one-third of one percent of election-related tweets. The company announced it banned Russia Today and seven other accounts that violated advertising policies, pledging to donate the revenue to academic research on Twitter during elections.

“Twitter believes that any activity of that kind — regardless of magnitude — is unacceptable, and we agree that we must do better to prevent it,” Twitter counsel Sean Edgett tells the committee in prepared remarks. “The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us — and one that we are determined to meet.”

Edgett also stated that the company is reviewing Russian efforts to influence the election through automation, coordinated activity, and advertising.

Still, that these companies did not seem to detect any of this while it was happening has spurred frustration and impatience from some senators.

“How does Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?” Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked.

Facebook’s influence is only expanding. Its recently released third-quarter earnings report shows that its “daily active users” increased 16 percent to 1.37 billion. Twitter, on the other hand, recently revealed in its earnings report that third-party applications inflated its user count since 2014 and may not be as incentivized to identify all the bots on its site, requiring further explanation to shareholders on its true reach.

At the hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein gave a stern warning to the companies and bluntly told them, “I don’t think you get it.

“You’ve created these platform and now they’re being misused,” she said. “You have to be the ones who do something about it, or we will.”

But it’s unclear whether the congressional makeup will allow it. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, John McCain, and Mark Warner have signed onto the Honest Ads Act, legislation that proposes requiring federal disclosure for political ads sold online and who paid for them. None of the three tech giants has committed to supporting the bill, nor is it clear if it has the congressional support necessary to pass.

The problem goes beyond ads, to undetectable influence. Around 80,000 “organic” posts, seemingly from American users, appeared in feeds belonging to one third of American Facebook users.

Though the big three made much information official this month, there is plenty left to uncover and decisions to be made on how to obstruct purposeful misinformation on social media during a divided time.

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