Tech giants face Congress as show­down over Rus­sia elec­tion med­dling looms

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Ju­lian Borger, Lau­ren Gam­bino and Sabrina Sid­diqui in Washington

A show­down is loom­ing in Washington be­tween Congress and the pow­er­ful so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies that have helped de­fine the cur­rent un­set­tled age in west­ern democ­ra­cies.

The im­me­di­ate is­sue be­fore the Se­nate and the House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees, which have sum­moned rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Face­book, Twit­ter and Google to ap­pear on 1 Novem­ber, is to de­ter­mine the ex­tent the com­pa­nies were used in a multi-pronged Rus­sian op­er­a­tion to in­flu­ence the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

All three com­pa­nies have ad­mit­ted that Rus­sian en­ti­ties bought ads on their sites in an ef­fort to skew the vote. In Face­book’s case, ads push­ing di­vi­sive mes­sages were bought by fake Amer­i­can ac­counts and fo­cused on swing states. On Twit­ter, vast armies of au­to­mated user ac­counts – “bots” – and fake users helped pro­mote fake news sto­ries, dam­ag­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton and favourable to Don­ald Trump. Rus­sian-funded ac­counts spread bo­gus sto­ries across the Google search en­gine and its sub­sidiary YouTube.

The wider ques­tion hov­er­ing over the com­mit­tee hear­ings on 1 Novem­ber is whether th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions, which once seemed to en­cap­su­late the spirit of free speech and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the 21st cen­tury, have be­come Tro­jan horses used by for­eign au­toc­ra­cies and do­mes­tic ex­trem­ists to sub­vert democ­ra­cies from the in­side, ex­ploit­ing open­ness, blur­ring fact and fic­tion and fu­elling civil con­flict.

“What should alarm the Amer­i­can peo­ple is the brazen ex­ploita­tion and dis­tor­tion of pop­u­lar opin­ion by a hos­tile for­eign power amount­ing re­ally to an at­tack on our democ­racy,” Richard Blu­men­thal, Demo­cratic sen­a­tor for Con­necti­cut, told the Guardian.

“This at­tempt to dis­rupt our elec­tions by sur­rep­ti­tiously tar­get­ing vot­ers in cer­tain places with cer­tain back­grounds and views is clear threat to our demo­cratic process, so Amer­i­cans should be as alarmed about it as they would be an act of war.”

Face­book, Twit­ter and Google will send their gen­eral coun­sels to tes­tify be­fore the con­gres­sional pan­els. They will face un­prece­dented ques­tions about how the com­pa­nies plan to po­lice them­selves.

With those hear­ings loom­ing, Trump sought on Satur­day to down­play the im­por­tance of Rus­sian ads and fake news dur­ing the elec­tion. “Keep hear­ing about “tiny” amount of money spent on Face­book ads,” the pres­i­dent tweeted. “What about the bil­lions of dol­lars of Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC amp; CBS?”

“Crooked Hil­lary Clin­ton spent hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars more on Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion than I did,” the pres­i­dent wrote in an­other tweet. “Face­book was on her side, not mine!”

None­the­less, mo­men­tum is build­ing in Congress to start reg­u­lat­ing and pa­trolling the open plains of so­cial me­dia. On Thurs­day, a bi­par­ti­san bid was launched in the Se­nate to ex­er­cise some con­trol over on­line po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. “The Hon­est Ads Act”, spon­sored by Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner and Repub­li­can John McCain, is aimed at pre­vent­ing for­eign in­flu­ence on elec­tions by sub­ject­ing po­lit­i­cal ads sold on­line to the same rules and trans­parency that ap­plies to TV and ra­dio.

“Un­for­tu­nately, US laws re­quir­ing trans­parency in po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns have not kept pace with rapid ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy, al­low­ing our ad­ver­saries to take ad­van­tage of th­ese loop­holes to de­ceive mil­lions of Amer­i­can vot­ers with im­punity,” McCain said on the bill’s launch.

So­cial me­dia com­pa­nies have fought off such at­tempts at reg­u­la­tion for years, but a tech com­pany em­ployee who re­quested anonymity to speak about can­didly about in­ter­nal in­dus­try dis­cus­sions sug­gested Sil­i­con Val­ley might now be open to nar­rowly tai­lored reg­u­la­tion on polit-

ical ads.

“In 2011, when po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing on so­cial me­dia were more of a fledg­ling in­dus­try, com­pa­nies were more con­cerned that a dis­claimer would be prob­lem­atic and hurt the in­dus­try,” the em­ployee said. “The so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ad space is so es­tab­lished now that it’s hard to see cam­paigns pulling out of the mar­ket based on that.”

How­ever, it is not clear how much sup­port the bill will at­tract from the Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, which has re­sisted ef­forts to re­strict any­thing it sees as re­lated to cam­paign fi­nance.

‘To­tally di­vi­sive ma­te­rial’

The cli­mate in which the leg­is­la­tion is de­bated will be de­ter­mined to a great ex­tent by the out­come of the 1 Novem­ber hear­ings. So­cial me­dia ex­ec­u­tives are go­ing to be asked what they knew about Rus­sian sub­ver­sion of their plat­forms and when they knew it.

There will be also be sharp ques­tion­ing over whether the pre­cise tar­get­ing of di­vi­sive ads and fake news in ar­eas that proved crit­i­cal to Trump’s vic­tory showed any ev­i­dence of col­lu­sion.

CNN has re­ported that Rus­sian­pur­chased ads were tar­geted in so­phis­ti­cated ways on key de­mo­graphic groups in Wis­con­sin and Michi­gan. In cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia, an­other state won nar­rowly by Trump, there is ev­i­dence of out­side tam­per­ing de­signed to de­press the Clin­ton vote.

John Mat­tes, a for­mer Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tor who helped run the on­line cam­paign in San Diego for Bernie San­ders, Clin­ton’s chal­lenger for the Demo­cratic nomination, has found San­ders sup­port­ers sites rid­dled with East­ern Euro­peans post­ing fake news un­der false names.

More re­cently he has come across the same phe­nom­e­non in a Face­book sup­port­ers group in cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia. One troll, call­ing him­self Stephen Woods, shared a se­ries of fake news sto­ries tar­get­ing Clin­ton, Mus­lim refugees and African Amer­i­cans.

Woods’ pro­file claimed he was from Los An­ge­les, but his de­tails were thin and he had not both­ered to delete posts be­fore Fe­bru­ary 2015 that were all in Mace­do­nian. Mat­tes sus­pects, as do US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, that many Mace­do­nian trolls, who were re­spon­si­ble for a sub­stan­tial amount of the fake news cir­cu­lated dur­ing the elec­tion, are funded and fed ma­te­rial from Moscow.

“Ob­vi­ously he was not do­ing this for eco­nomic rea­sons,” Mat­tes said. “This was to­tally di­vi­sive ma­te­rial in­tended to de­press turnout for Hil­lary among San­ders sup­port­ers in a crit­i­cal swing area.”

As the ev­i­dence of so­cial me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion has grown, Face­book has mounted a cam­paign to ad­dress its vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and re­pair the dam­age to its rep­u­ta­tion.

“I don’t want any­one to use our tools to un­der­mine democ­racy. That’s not what we stand for,” chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Zucker­berg wrote in a 21 Septem­ber post, on re­turn­ing from parental leave.

He listed nine re­me­dial ac­tions the com­pany was go­ing to take, in­clud­ing mea­sures that would dis­close who paid for a po­lit­i­cal ad and al­low their Face­book page to be vis­ited to see what ads they were post­ing to other audiences.

Face­book has handed to the spe­cial coun­sel and con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing into the Krem­lin’s in­ter­fer­ence the con­tent of 3,000 po­lit­i­cal ads paid for by a shad­owy Rus­sian en­tity called the In­ter­net Re­search Agency (IRA). The com­pany’s chief op­er­at­ing officer, Sh­eryl Sand­berg, said Face­book owed the na­tion “not just an apol­ogy but de­ter­mi­na­tion” to de­feat at­tempts to sub­vert US democ­racy.

In an in­ter­view with the Ax­ios me­dia site, Sand­berg did not ad­dress whether Rus­sian trolls were tar­get­ing the same users as the Trump cam­paign, which would point to­wards col­lu­sion. But she did prom­ise: “When the ads get re­leased we will also be re­leas­ing the tar­get­ing for those ads. We’re go­ing to be fully trans­par­ent.”

How­ever, she was vague on the ques­tion of when Face­book’s man­age­ment be­came aware of largescale Rus­sian ma­nip­u­la­tion, say­ing only: “We started to hear the ru­mours around the elec­tion it­self of a dif­fer­ent kind of at­tack.”

Face­book will be asked to be more spe­cific re­gard­ing ques­tions about when red flags were raised in­side the com­pany and when an in­ter­nal ex­am­i­na­tion was launched. It will also be asked for a bet­ter sense of the true scale of its Rus­sian in­fil­tra­tion, of which the IRA ads may only the tip of the ice­berg.

Face­book has said it has taken down 470 ac­counts linked to the IRA but Sen­a­tor Warner has pointed out that it took down 50,000 ac­counts in France.

“It just still seems scale-wise, I think there’s more to do,” he said.

‘The per­fect dis­in­for­ma­tion plat­form’

Twit­ter has taken a less forth­com­ing ap­proach, not re­veal­ing num­bers re­gard­ing the pro­por­tion of sus­pected bots among its users. Some an­a­lysts be­lieve fake ac­tiv­ity could ac­count for more than half Twit­ter’s traf­fic

Buz­zfeed re­ported that the com­pany took 11 month to take down a Rus­sian troll ac­count im­per­son­at­ing the Ten­nessee Repub­li­can Party which had more than 130,000 fol­low­ers, de­spite the com­plaints of the real GOP in the state.

Fur­ther­more, in the course of the elec­tion Twit­ter changed its pri­vacy pol­icy in a way that has made it harder to in­ves­ti­gate the Rus­sian in­flu­ence cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to Thomas Rid, a strate­gic studies pro­fes­sor and cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity in Washington. Be­fore the change in pol­icy, tweets deleted by users would re­main in ar­chives main­tained by the hand­ful of data com­pa­nies who sub­scribe to full “fire­hose” ac­cess to the com­plete Twit­ter feed.

Af­ter the pol­icy change, which some ev­i­dence sug­gests was made in Septem­ber 2016, tweets deleted by their au­thors also have to be deleted in the ar­chives, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to carry out a foren­sic anal­y­sis of cam­paigns to pro­mote cer­tain links, sto­ries and hash­tags by any­one seek­ing to cover their tracks.

Rid, who has been analysing the Twit­ter pri­vacy pol­icy change, said this “made it eas­ier to de­stroy a lot of foren­sic ev­i­dence that would have been use­ful for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion”.

“The fact that we are in a democ­racy and we don’t know the an­swers to th­ese ques­tions is un­ac­cept­able,” he said. “Were the KGB to hire a con­trac­tor to build the per­fect dis­in­for­ma­tion plat­form, they could not have done a bet­ter job than Twit­ter.”

In a state­ment on 28 Septem­ber, Twit­ter said it was im­ple­ment­ing poli­cies aimed at weed­ing out bots and had found a to­tal of 201 ac­counts that ap­peared to be linked to the Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda cam­paign. The com­pany is re­ported by the Daily Beast to have handed over de­tails of tweets pro­moted by the Krem­lin’s English-lan­guage TV net­work, RT.

That was a tiny fig­ure com­pared to the scale of in­tru­sion sug­gested by out­side re­searchers. Warner called Twit­ter’s re­sponse on the is­sue “in­ad­e­quate on ev­ery level”.

Google said last month it had found no ev­i­dence of a Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda cam­paign. But the Washington Post re­ported on 9 Oc­to­ber that an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion had in fact found Rus­sian op­er­a­tives spread dis­in­for­ma­tion across Google’s many prod­ucts, which in­clude YouTube, as well as ad­ver­tis­ing as­so­ci­ated with Google search and Gmail.

The con­gres­sional hear­ings will rep­re­sent an open­ing skir­mish in a struggle over the lim­its of in­ter­net free­dom. The Sil­i­con Val­ley giants will be pro­tect­ing a world­view as well as their profit mar­gin.

“There is a Cal­i­for­nian lib­er­tar­ian men­tal­ity that as­sumes ev­ery­one is good at heart and that if you cre­ate an open plat­form, great things hap­pen,” said one in­ves­ti­ga­tor look­ing into Rus­sian ma­nip­u­la­tion of so­cial me­dia plat­forms. “But there are bad peo­ple out there who want to do bad things.

“The ques­tion about all this free­dom is – what is a cost worth pay­ing?”

What should alarm the Amer­i­can peo­ple is the brazen ex­ploita­tion and dis­tor­tion of pop­u­lar opin­ion by a for­eign power

Pho­to­graph: Sam Mor­ris/Guardian De­sign Team/Getty Images

The hear­ings will seek to un­der­stand what the big tech com­pa­nies knew about Rus­sian at­tempts to in­flu­ence the US elec­tion.

Pho­to­graph: Evan Vucci/AP

Don­ald Trump in the Oval Of­fice. ‘The Hon­est Ads Act’ is aimed at pre­vent­ing for­eign in­flu­ence on elec­tions by sub­ject­ing on­line po­lit­i­cal ads to the same trans­parency that ap­plies to TV and ra­dio.

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