Representatives From Facebook, Twitter And Google Testify About Russia's Election Influence
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right, to some other news now on Capitol Hill where today kicked off the first of three congressional hearings all focused on Russia and how Russia used social media platforms to influence the 2016 election. The Senate Judiciary Committee was up today, and fielding questions were representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google. One big takeaway - Russian-linked accounts pumped out divisive information to as many as 126 million Americans. That's on Facebook alone.
NPR's Ryan Lucas joins us now. He's been following the hearings. Hey, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Howdy.
KELLY: We mentioned Facebook and that really mind-boggling number of Americans that were reached there. Did we get numbers from the other two companies as well?
LUCAS: We did get numbers but kind of on a - in a broader sense. We got some answers, and we got certainly a better picture of Russia's use of the platforms. We did not get a complete picture, however. We knew about Russian advertising online to try to sow divisions among Americans. The breadth of that effort today was kind of revealed to be much greater than we had previously known.
As for the numbers, you already mentioned Facebook. We did get numbers from the other two companies as well. Twitter said it had identified 36,000 Russia-linked automated accounts that produced 1.4 - that's a big number - 1.4 million election-related tweets between September and November of 2016 alone.
LUCAS: Google said that it had identified 18 channels on YouTube that they suspect are tied to Russia's influence efforts. Those produced more than 1,000 videos. A lot of that material, according to the companies, was on divisive topics like race and immigration. This activity started before the election. And importantly, what they also noted today is that it continued after the Election Day. This is a clip here of Lindsey Graham summing things up in an exchange with Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: During the election, they were trying to create discord between Americans, most of it directed against Clinton. After the election, you saw Russian-tied groups and organizations trying to undermine President Trump's legitimacy. Is that what you saw on Facebook?
COLIN STRETCH: I'd say that's an accurate statement.
LUCAS: Now, all of the companies acknowledged that the activity that they were discussing today on their platforms is a problem. They also tried, however, to downplay how significant it was, just kind of putting it in comparison to the overall traffic, saying that it's really just a sliver.
KELLY: OK, but - a sliver, OK - but a sliver that reaches a lot of people. Did we get any new information on what these tech companies are planning to do about this so that, say, the next election in 2018 does not go the same way?
LUCAS: Well, Silicon Valley folks have been eager for a long time to protect their public images and, let's say, fend off regulations and legislation. There's already been a bill that was introduced in the Senate that would impose transparency requirements on online advertising of the sort discussed today. Facebook, Twitter and Google today reiterated that they're going to improve transparency in advertising on their platforms.
Facebook is going to allow users to see who pays for ads. It's going to keep a public database. Twitter has already banned RT and Sputnik, two Russian media outlets that U.S. intelligence agencies - were part of the overt influence campaign during the election. They're going to ban their advertising on its platforms. Google's also talking about greater transparency. So there's a lot of talk right now of what the companies say they're going to do on their own.
KELLY: And what did senators say in reaction to this?
LUCAS: Well, it's still very early in the process. Congress has a lot on its plate. There's a lot that it has to do between now and the end of the year. And it may be that the legislative efforts that are already on the table aren't actually going to go anywhere. So it may be that, you know, it's not enough for the sponsors of the legislation right now - what the companies are promising. But then again, the bill might not pass.
KELLY: And then meanwhile, tomorrow this action all unfolds yet again - two more committees holding hearings, same topic.
LUCAS: That's right. We have the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, which are both the main investigative venues in Congress on the Russia question.
KELLY: All right, that's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks very much.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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