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Congress grills social media platforms on Russian-sponsored ads

Representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the House Intelligence Committee after it was confirmed that certain political advertisements were purchased by Russian agents.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google Law Enforcement and Information Security Director Richard Salgado are sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee on October 31. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, (Courtesy of Google Images)

The whole idea behind social media is connecting with other people. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook created his famous platform with the intent of connecting fellow students to one another. Since then, Facebook has become a platform not only for connecting with people anywhere in the world, but also to discuss or proclaim ideas. The dreaded Facebook fights about the 2016 election show how volatile and deep the divide can be between social media users, even on a platform that was meant to bring them together. These fights were not contained to Facebook, but also appeared on other social media platforms.

After the 2016 election, rumors spread that the Russians had influenced the election, either by tampering with votes or by influencing the news that many people saw on their social media feeds. With the announcement of an investigation into the rumors came more pressure on social media companies to confirm or deny Russian influence. In early September, Facebook confirmed that ads had been purchased during the election by Russian agents seeking to influence Americans. Google and Twitter also confirmed that such ads and posts had been purchased and placed on their sites as well.

According to the New York Times, 3,000 Facebook ads were purchased between June 2015 and May 2017 costing $100,000, and 126 million citizens saw these ads during the same time period. Facebook ads can be purchased to target certain individuals who have interests aligned with the ad. USA Today gave an example of how these targeted ads worked: “If your interests were the Bible, faith or Christianity, you could have been shown an ad placed by the Russians showing Jesus and Satan arm wrestling, with the caption, ‘Satan: If I win Clinton wins! Jesus: Not if I can help it! Press ‘Like’ to help Jesus win!’” Twitter said 36,746 accounts had been linked to Russian accounts, producing 1.4 million election tweets over three months. Google, which owns YouTube, had $4,700 worth of ads linked to Russia. Specifically, 18 YouTube channels displaying 43 hours of videos were linked to Russian accounts. These videos had a total of 309,000 views.

Once the ad is shared, it looks more like a post from a friend on Facebook rather than an ad from a company or organization.

An additional issue with Facebook’s ads that has been discussed is the way ads could be masked once they have been shared. According to USA Today, “If someone who sees that ad, or boosted the post, decides to share it with their Facebook friends, the ‘Sponsored’ tag no longer appears because it’s no longer a paid ad.” Once the ad is shared, it looks more like a post from a friend on Facebook rather than an ad from a company or organization.

Once the extent of Russian influence in social media was discovered, Congress began taking action to research ad content and their sponsors, as well as to hold tech companies more accountable. Senator Amy Klobucher (D-MN) sponsored a bill called the Honest Ads Act, with the stated purpose of “enhancing transparency and accountability for online political advertisements by requiring those who purchase and publish such ads to disclose information about the advertisements to the public, and for other purposes.” Social media companies feel that such legislation goes against their principles. Zuckerberg has stood by the idea that Facebook is only a platform for ideas, not a curator of those ideas. It should be noted that the proposed legislation would not stop foreign influencers from being able to purchase ads, but would require more transparency.

Congress also requested each company testify about the ad purchases and fake accounts. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, stated, “It will be important for the committee to scrutinize how rigorous Facebook’s internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did.” Facebook, Twitter, and Google sent their legal teams to testify on October 31 and November 1 before the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. The social media companies took the position that their companies recognized the issues and lack of transparency. Despite these issues, the companies also argued that they should be allowed to self-regulate their industry. Representatives were skeptical of the companies’ abilities to effectively change their policies and practices.

“You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?’”

Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) expressed Congress’s skepticism saying, “Candidly, your companies know more about Americans, in many ways, than the United States government does. The idea that you had no idea any of this was happening strains my credibility.” At the hearing, Senators and Representatives thoroughly interrogated the attorneys on Capital Hill. Senator Al Franken (D-MN), a former comedian, noted that Facebook was capable of maintaining a vast range of data points, but was unable to question why certain U.S. election ads were being purchased in rubles, the official currency of Russia. Senator Franken then turned to Google saying, “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?’”

Attorneys for the three companies acknowledged that their companies had not done enough to stop the purchases from foreign influencers. Attorney Colin Stretch for Facebook responded to the Committee, saying, “Many of these ads and posts are inflammatory, some are downright offensive, and much of it will be particularly painful to communities that engaged with this content believing it to be authentic. They have every right to expect more from us.” General counsel Sean Edgett of Twitter echoed Facebook’s statement, assuring the Committee that action would be taken to combat fake accounts and posts. Edgett stated, “Today, we intend to demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment to addressing this new threat, both through the effort that we are devoting to uncovering what happened in 2016, and by taking steps to prevent it from happening again.”

By the end of the hearing, no clear decisions were made concerning foreign- purchased ads. Furthermore, The Honest Ads Act has not made much progress in Congress. Social media companies have released statements stating that they are working on improving transparency. While policy changes and legislation will help, consumers of social media must also take steps to be better informed and to discern what is an ad, news, or an opinion piece. In Italy, learning to verify and identify news is becoming a part of the high school curriculum. Whether or not this method of combatting misleading ads is effective still remains to be seen, but similar programs may become more common. Verifying the credibility of news sources and identifying content that is factually based will be key to preventing future manipulation.

Claire Scott
About Claire Scott (15 Articles)
Claire Scott is a third year law student and serves as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Chesapeake, VA, Claire is a Campbell University alumi. After her 1L summer, she worked in the Harnett County NC District Attorney's Office as well as the District 11A Veteran Treatment Court. Her legal interests include estate planning and veteran law.