How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets Of Protesters Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared in a Capitol Hill marathon before Senate and House Intelligence Committees. The public got a clearer view of how Russia operated online to interfere in 2016.
NPR logo

How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets Of Protesters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/561427876/561427877" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets Of Protesters

How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets Of Protesters

How Russia Used Facebook To Organize 2 Sets Of Protesters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/561427876/561427877" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared in a Capitol Hill marathon before the Senate and then House Intelligence Committees. At today's hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the public got a clearer view of how Russia operated online to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The public now has a clearer view of how Russia operated online during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That came in the second day of testimony on Capitol Hill from executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google. NPR's Ryan Lucas has the story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: In May of last year, two groups of demonstrators faced off outside the Islamic Center in Houston Texas. On one side stood people drawn by a Facebook group called Heart of Texas. It had 250,000 followers. The group's tagline was folksy - homeland of guns, barbecue and your heart. They were there to demonstrate against the purported Islamization of Texas. On the other side were people who were also drawn by a Facebook group - United Muslims of America. It had 328,000 followers. Tagline - I'm a Muslim, and I'm proud. They were on the streets to save Islamic knowledge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BURR: What neither side could've known is that Russia trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans.

LUCAS: That's Senator Richard Burr. He's the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BURR: Ironically, one person who attended stated the Heart of Texas promoted this event, but we didn't see one of them. We now know why. It's hard to attend an event in Houston, Texas, when you're trolling from a site in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

LUCAS: That's right. Russian operatives had established both Facebook groups. They did so, as Burr said, to fuel divisions among Americans. The price tag on all this - it set Russia back a grand total of around $200. There have been news accounts about Russian-organized events in the U.S. But Burr's account provided the most detailed example yet of how Russia's nefarious activities in the digital world succeeded in putting Americans on the streets in the real world.

Burr used the Houston protests to kick off Wednesday's hearing with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google. It set a tough tone that most committee members stuck to in their questioning. They pressed the social media companies on their response to Russia's activities. Why, lawmakers asked, did it take so long for big tech to react? Vice Chairman Mark Warner...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK WARNER: Candidly, your companies know more about Americans in many ways than the United States government does. And the idea that you had no idea of any of this - was happening strains credibility.

LUCAS: The companies have tried to limit the fallout, and they've repeatedly said that Russia's actions on their platforms are a problem. Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN STRETCH: It pains us as a company. It pains me personally to see that we were - that our platform was abused in this way.

LUCAS: All three companies have pledged to crack down on fake accounts and to remove problematic material. They've also promised greater transparency in online advertising. But at this point, none of them wants to sign on to proposed legislation that would mandate the same transparency requirements to online ads as currently govern those in print and broadcast. There is, several of the senators noted, a bigger, almost philosophical challenge in addressing Russia's manipulation of these tech giants to undermine America's democratic system. Here's Texas Republican John Cornyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CORNYN: It strikes me that the United States is operating at a tremendous disadvantage. We are a free and open society. We believe in freedom of the press, freedom of expression. Our opponents have the opposite view. They view information as a tool of warfare.

LUCAS: How to limit the ability of America's adversaries to benefit from that openness without limiting America's freedoms - that's a question nobody has an answer to quite yet. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.