In a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday afternoon, lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter testified under oath about Russian manipulation of their platforms during the 2016 election. The lawyers confessed their companies’ shortcomings, promised fixes, and told senators they were taking the issue extremely, extremely seriously.
But while delivering these statements, they did something else even more critical: they made clear how susceptible their companies are to future attacks on US democracy.
Throughout the hearing, the companies struggled to persuade senators that they could effectively monitor platforms of their size. Facebook was hammered by Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a freshman Republican, in a series of questions about whether it can effectively monitor the 5 million advertisers spending money on the platform each month.
“I’m trying to get us down from ‘lala land,’” Kennedy said. “The truth of the matter is you have 5 million advertisers, they change every month, every minute, probably every second — you don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?”
In describing their policies, the platforms didn’t bear much better with senators’ questions.
Foreign agents using their real names on Facebook can try to cause chaos as long as they’re acting within Facebook’s rules, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch’s testimony revealed. “It wasn’t so much the content — although to be clear much of that content is offensive and has no place on Facebook — but the real problem with what we saw was its lack of authenticity,” Stretch said. If Kremlin agents used real accounts and abide by the platform’s rules, that implied, they could go ahead and post away.
In its testimony, Twitter made clear it doesn’t have a good response to block shell companies looking to manipulate elections from advertising on its platform. When Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked the company how it would prevent a lawful corporation called “Americans for Puppies and Prosperity” from trying to swing elections on behalf of a special interest or a foreign power, Twitter acting General Counsel Sean Edgett didn’t have an answer.
“I think that’s a problem,” Edgett said, explaining Twitter is continuing to look into “how do you get to know your client.”
And when Google was asked about whether it viewed itself as a media or technology company — a question getting at whether it feels a sense of responsibility for the news on its platform — it went straight for the “don’t blame us” answer. "We are not a newspaper," Google Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security Richard Salgado said.
The platforms’ inability to monitor themselves was poked at by senators throughout the day. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken ranted against Facebook, noting how slow it was to release its findings about a $100,000 ad buy on its platform by a Kremlin-linked agency seeking to disrupt US politics. “How did 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 election 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?”
At the outset of the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham asked, “The challenge of this hearing, and of this focus, is how do we keep the good and deal with the bad?” When the hearing ended, the answer seemed as unattainable as ever.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.