Senate Committee Vents About Hijacking Of Big Tech For Information War The Senate intelligence committee gets an update from Big Tech about how companies are fighting "active measures" like those waged against the U.S. in 2016.

Senate Committee Vents About Hijacking Of Big Tech For Information War

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Top executives from Facebook and Twitter are here in town today with some important meetings. They're going before House and Senate committees on Capitol Hill, and they will be grilled again about what social media companies could have done to stop Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and what they're doing now about Russian propaganda ahead of the midterms. NPR's Tim Mak will be covering the hearing, and he's with us in the studio. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: So as I mentioned, these companies have been in this situation before answering these kinds of questions. In the past, they've been reluctant to say they could have done more to prevent their platforms from being abused. Are they - do you expect them to say something different today?

MAK: Yeah. I think there's an increasing sense amongst big tech firms that this is a serious problem, that an open society and social media platforms can be actually used against American democracy. Facebook, for example, is expected to emphasize how they're doubling the number of people working on safety and security issues to more than 20,000. And they're going to talk about how they're collaborating with law enforcement increasingly in the months ahead. But there's one firm that's not going to be there at all, and that's Google, which has declined to send founder Larry Page or its CEO to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. And in his place, there's going be a little chair there, a little sign - a bit of Washington theater - as there is bipartisan consensus from Republicans and Democrats on this committee that their offer, Google's offer, to send its chief legal officer is insufficient.

MARTIN: I mean, this is really what the central tension has been about, how these companies define themselves, right? Are they just a platform for people to express their views, or do they have a responsibility to curate them? How did they come down on this?

MAK: Yeah. I mean, Facebook in particular is trying to make a good faith effort towards transparency and addressing some concerns from lawmakers and the public. And a lot of this is driven by the changing nature of the threat and how serious it now appears and has become. There's no sign that this threat is diminishing. In fact, just in the past month, we had Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter all announce that they had discovered and disrupted foreign operations. Iran was revealed to be a new player in worldwide disinformation campaigns. And on top of this, we found that there was a new Russian disinformation campaign and apparent hacking attempts. Big tech firms are really on red alert.

MARTIN: So these threats keep popping up and these companies say that they're equipped to manage them.

MAK: Well, that's the thing about it. Some of these issues can be addressed by the companies themselves. Some of them can be addressed by regulations that Congress might propose, such as online ad disclosures or things like new sanctions against foreign actors. But a lot of this has to do with people themselves. It's a multidimensional threat. It involves everything from hacking emails to bot networks online to disinformation campaigns to election infrastructure security. And a lot of this can be dealt with folks who are just listening to the radio right now, and that's doing things like securing their emails with multifactor authentication and being super judicious about the kinds of information they view online, whether or not they double check their sources, whether or not they're looking at news sources that have credibility and a long track record of being established. It's a really complicated problem. It involves state governments, big tech firms, Congress and people being responsible themselves.

MARTIN: And us. You're saying it's on us. All right. NPR's Tim Mak, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

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