Senior executives from Facebook and Twitter testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that they have made progress in purging fake accounts that were the source foreign efforts to influence the 2016 election campaign.
But they called for greater cooperation with government, industry and cyber-security experts to identify future threats and attempts to meddle in the 2018 mid-term elections
In his opening statement for the Sept. 5 hearings, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged the significant progress by social media services in identifying and removing fake and misleading activity from social media platforms run by Twitter, Facebook and Google.
He also noted that the attempts to interfere in U.S. elections had moved beyond Russia to Iran and other nations and observed that most of the problem accounts most recently removed by Facebook and Twitter were from Iran, rather than Russia.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg appeared before the committee, however Google’s top executives declined to appear, instead sending their top lawyer, Kent Walker. The Committee declined to hear Walker and instead Google was represented by an empty chair. Walker did, however, provide his testimony to the news media.
The primary purpose of the Senate hearing was to receive updates from the social media platforms on their efforts to identify and remove Russian-sponsored accounts along with the accounts of other bad actors that had been engaging in “inauthentic” behavior. Most of the accounts were removed because they were automated users, or they were simply fake accounts.
However both executives also ended up fielding questions regarding alleged bias against users who had conservative political leanings. Twitter’s Dorsey said that his platform does not make decisions based on political party or leanings, and that there was no algorithm that would allow for that. A number of observers in the room noted that US President Donald Trump, who positions himself as a conservative Republican, uses Twitter almost constantly.
They most significant disclosure by the two social network executives was the extent to which they work together to identify bad actors and uncover threats. Dorsey said on more than one occasion that he received information from Facebook or Google regarding accounts that were sponsored by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian state-sponsored hacking and disinformation group closely linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Another common theme was the need for more help from the government in fighting these attempts to influence elections. “We know we can’t stop interference by ourselves,” Facebook’s Sandberg said in her testimony. “We don’t have all the investigative tools that the government has, and we can’t always attribute attacks or identify motives. But we will continue to work closely with law enforcement around the world and do everything we can to stop foreign election interference wherever it occurs on our platform.”
Dorsey agreed. “We also recognize that, as a private company, there are threats that we cannot understand and address alone,” he said. “We must continue to work together with our elected officials, government partners, industry peers, outside experts, and other stakeholders so that the American people and the global community can understand the full context in which these threats arise.”
Walker’s testimony, which wasn’t presented in live testimony to the committee, but which was made available to it separately, echoed Dorsey and Sandberg’s statements that industry cooperation was essential to combating the risk.
“We certainly can’t do this important work alone,” Walker said in his prepared testimony. “Combating disinformation campaigns requires efforts from across the industry. We’ll continue to work with other companies to better protect the collective digital ecosystem, and, even as we take our own steps, we are open to working with governments on legislation that promotes electoral transparency.”
What was also evident is that each of the social media platforms was approaching the problem in their own way. Twitter, for example, has formed a dedicated cross-functional analytical team that works to monitor escalations of inauthentic, malicious, automated or human-coordinated activity.
Dorsey said that the team receives input from within Twitter as well as from external sources. He said that this team is intended to make sure Twitter is ready for the upcoming mid-term elections by performing in-depth analysis of Twitter data.
Facebook, meanwhile is focusing on fake accounts, fake news and misleading advertising. This effort has led to the closing of over a billion fake accounts. The service has also changed its advertising policy to create more transparency, and to make even highly-targeted ads available for anyone to view, and to verify.
Google has also publicly disclosed the action against fake accounts. Besides providing a verification service to political candidates, office holders, activists and journalists who might be caught up in coordinated disinformation efforts, it’s also offering them security keys to protect their accounts and to fight phishing.
Committee members during the hearing alluded to the growing sentiment for some form of social media regulation that would put the government in a position to demand action from the companies.
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) suggested that some form of privacy protection akin to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation might be necessary in light of some of the worst excesses of social media data collection, notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which personal data collected on Facebook subscribers was used to target political messages from Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
As to whether the social media platforms will be able to block interference by Russia and other nations trying to affect the U.S. mid-term elections, that is at best a firm “maybe.” The state actors are well-funded, highly motivated and the social media platforms need to find them in a vast sea of other users.
It’s highly likely that at least some of their efforts will make it through to voters. The question then is whether those voters have learned enough to recognize phony propaganda campaigns and ignore the attempts to steer their votes. We’ll have to see whether that works.