A two-plus hour hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee with Facebook, Twitter, and Google provided more answers than questions on Tuesday, though it also yielded few new insights into how Russia used social media to interfere with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
At times congenial and others uncomfortable, the session essentially gave senators the opportunity to treat three of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies like a piñata, with Facebook taking the brunt of the damage, and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) wielding the biggest stick.
Looking to explain how the technology companies didn’t uncover the misuse of their systems sooner, Franken used his allotted time to question Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch.
“Mr. Stretch, 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?” asked Franken. “Those are two data points: American political ads and Russian money, rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”
Stretch’s response was that in 2016, Facebook was intent on making sure accounts were not compromised and content wasn’t stolen or compromised.
“In hindsight,” said Stretch, “we should have had a broader lens. There were signals that we missed and—”
“People are buying ads on your platform with rubles—they’re political ads,” Franken interrupted. “You put billions of data points together all the time. That’s what I hear that these platforms do; they’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?'”
“Senator, it’s a signal we should have been alert to,” Stretch replied.
Franken’s larger message wasn’t simply about data, dollars, cents, or even common sense, but rather the law and Silicon Valley’s knowledge of and adherence to it. He then asked if Facebook would commit to not accepting political ads paid for with foreign money in the future. Stretch’s response was that Facebook’s goal was to require all political ads, regardless of currency, to provide documentation that shows their authorized to advertise.
The non-answer did little to satisfy Franken. He interrupted Stretch again, saying “So, you can’t say ‘no’ to that?… Please answer yes or no, can you do that? You’re sophisticated. You’re the chief legal counsel for Facebook. Please answer yes or no.”
Stretch replied that Facebook would not permit political advertising by foreign actors. “The reason I’m hesitating on foreign currency is that its relatively easy for bad actors to switch currencies. It’s a signal, but it’s not enough.”
Appearing exasperated by the aggressive exchange, Stretch tried to take a step back, but Franken continued to give chase. “Senator, our goal is to make sure we’re addressing all forms of abuse,” he said.
“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little bit better!” Franken barked back.
At that point, Franken realized his allotted time was waning, likely to Stretch’s relief.
Later in the hearing, the Minnesota Democrat got a few more minutes to move on to Twitter and Google and to make his larger point. He posed the same question of whether Twitter and Google would commit to stop running electoral ads on American political campaigns paid for by foreign actors.
Twitter’s acting general counsel Sean Edgett answered that he didn’t believe his company accepted rubles before finally stating his company would agree to Franken’s request. Google’s director of information security and law enforcement, Richard Salgado, expressed concern that the information showing the advertiser was foreign would have to be “a good signal.”
“Foreigners can’t use money in our campaigns, you know that, right? It’s illegal,” replied Franken.
Outside of Franken’s frenzy, the judiciary committee probed issues surrounding Russian-based accounts, the viral reach of fake stories shared on the various platforms, the length of time foreign countries have been seeding doubt online, and the amount of Americans their messages reached.
But it wasn’t a one-way exchange, said the technology companies representatives. When asked what they learned, Stretch replied, “I’ve learned the seriousness of this committee and its approach to this topic.”
Said Edgett: “I’ve learned we have a lot more work to do.”