In his opening statement committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) stressed the importance of the hearing. “Agents of a hostile foreign power reached into the United States using these platforms. They intend to tear us apart using social media platforms Americans invented.”
Committee Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) agreed, stressing the divisive role of the Russian activities.
“Russian operatives are attempting to hijack the conversation and make Americans angry,” Warner said. “They did it during the 2016 presidential campaign and they’re doing it now.” Warner said that so far, nobody has done enough to stop it. “This is not new. Russians have been conducting information warfare campaigns for decades.”
Warner said that the actual political ads placed by Russian operatives, while serious, were relatively minor compared to the efforts to place divisive ads based around issues. He said that his investigators have found an additional 120,000 posts on Instagram that were placed by the IRA, and that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts were either fake or the work of bots used to build traffic.
“Paid ads on Facebook are just the tip of the story,” Warner, who was clearly annoyed by what he saw as a lack of progress on the part of the social media. He said that the committee has been blown off by the leaders.
Warner also noted that also bothers him that the social media companies didn’t do anything until the committee really went after them. “Your initial presentations were not sufficient.”
Warner then asked Facebook representatives whether the company had looked for any evidence that the same Russians that were attacking during the U.S. election were also involved with the tampering of the French election. Facebook’s vice president and general counsel Colin Stretch, who was also at the Tuesday's Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, was unable to answer the question.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that she doesn’t think the social media industry really gets it. “What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare,” Feinstein said. “The Russians are attempting to sow conflict and discontent about this country.”
Feinstein then referred to Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing which she also attended. “Yesterday I asked specific questions and got vague answers,” she said. “You bear this responsibility. You created these platforms.”
“You have to do something or we will,” Feinstein said, referring to legislation that the committee was considering that would give the federal government the power to regulate internet advertising.
Besides asking the lawyers who attended the hearing hard questions about the practices of their companies, several senators expressed concern that there was no one present at the hearings who was in a position to take action. “Where are your CEOs?” the senators asked, repeatedly. None of the corporate legal counselors at the hearings were able to answer that question, either.