Face­book, Twit­ter, Google de­fend se­cu­rity mea­sures

South Florida Times - - BUSINESS - By ated Press The As­soci-

MARY CLARE JALONICK

WASH­ING­TON (AP) - As rev­e­la­tions emerged that Rus­sian-linked ac­counts reached many more Amer­i­can vot­ers than pre­vi­ously thought, Tech gi­ants Face­book, Twit­ter and Google on Tues­day de­fended their se­cu­rity mea­sures and promised a Se­nate sub­com­mit­tee they would do more to stop the mis­use of their plat­forms by a for­eign na­tion.

Just be­fore top lawyers from the three com­pa­nies be­gan their tes­ti­mony be­fore a Se­nate Ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee, Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., quoted Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as say­ing that he had won based on Twit­ter. Gra­ham also said the so­cial me­dia plat­forms were be­ing used by peo­ple who “wish us harm and wish to un­der­cut our way of life.”

Gra­ham said the pur­pose of the hear­ing was for the gov­ern­ment to “fig­ure out how we can help” the tech com­pa­nies. All three also tes­ti­fied Wed­nes­day be­fore the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees as part of con­gres­sional probes of Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence. Face­book data ob­tained by

re­vealed that posts gen­er­ated by a Rus­sian in­ter­net agency po­ten­tially reached as many as 126 mil­lion users. The com­pany said pages cre­ated by Rus­sia’s In­ter­net Re­search Agency gen­er­ated 80,000 posts on 120 pages be­tween Jan­uary 2015 and Au­gust 2017. Pos­si­ble views reached the mil­lions after peo­ple liked the posts and shared them.

Tes­ti­mony from Colin Stretch, Face­book’s gen­eral coun­sel, made clear that many of those users may never have seen the ma­te­rial. The com­pany said the to­tal num­ber rep­re­sents around 1 out of 23,000 pieces of con­tent on the site.

Th­ese “or­ganic” posts that ap­peared in Face­book users’ news feeds are dis­tinct from more than 3,000 ad­ver­tise­ments linked to the agency that Face­book has al­ready tur ned over to con­gres­sional com­mit­tees. The ads — many of which fo­cused on di­vi­sive so­cial is­sues — pointed peo­ple to the agency’s pages, where they could then like or share its ma­te­rial.

Twit­ter told the same sub­com­mit­tee that it has un­cov­ered and shut down 2,752 ac­counts linked to Rus­sia’s In­ter net Re­search Agency, which is known for pro­mot­ing pro-Rus­sian gov­ern­ment po­si­tions.

That num­ber is nearly 14 times larger than the num­ber of ac­counts Twit­ter handed over to con­gres­sional com­mit­tees three weeks ago.

And Google an­nounced in a blog post that it found ev­i­dence of “lim­ited” mis­use of its ser­vices by the Rus­sian group, as well as some YouTube chan­nels that were likely backed by Rus­sian agents.

Law­mak­ers have pres­sured the so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies to come for­ward and have crit­i­cized them for not be­ing fully forth­com­ing im­me­di­ately after the elec­tion. All three firms are ex­pected to face ques­tions about what ev­i­dence of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence they found on their ser­vices, as well as why they didn’t find it ear­lier. Law­mak­ers are also ex­pected to probe whether the firms know of any con­nec­tions be­tween the Rus­sian posts and the Trump cam­paign.

Gra­ham, who chairs the sub­com­mit­tee hold­ing the hear­ing, said in a state­ment that ma­nip­u­la­tion of so­cial me­dia by ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions and for­eign gov­ern­ments is “one of the great­est chal­lenges to Amer­i­can democ­racy” and he wants to make sure the com­pa­nies are do­ing ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to com­bat it.

“Clearly, to date, their ef­forts have been un­suc­cess­ful,” Gra­ham said.

On Twit­ter, the Rus­sia-linked ac­counts put out 1.4 mil­lion elec­tion-re­lated tweets from Septem­ber through Nov. 15 last year — nearly half of them au­to­mated. The com­pany also found nine Rus­sian ac­counts that bought ads, most of which came from the state-backed news ser­vice RT, pre­vi­ously known as Rus­sia To­day.

Twit­ter said last week it would no longer ac­cept ads from RT and Sput­nik, another state-spon­sored news out­let. It will do­nate the $1.9 mil­lion it has earned from RT since 2011 to sup­port ex­ter nal re­search into po­lit­i­cal uses of Twit­ter.

Google said two ac­counts linked to the Rus­sian group spent $4,700 on ads on its plat­forms dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion. The com­pany also found 18 YouTube chan­nels likely backed by Rus­sian agents. Those chan­nels hosted 1,108 videos with 43 hours of ma­te­rial, although they racked up just 309,000 views in the U.S. be­tween June 2015 and Novem­ber 2016, Google said.

The com­pa­nies will al­most cer­tainly do what they can to con­vince law­mak­ers that they can fix the prob­lem on their own, with­out the need for reg­u­la­tion. A bill un­veiled ear­lier in Oc­to­ber would re­quire so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies to keep pub­lic files of elec­tion ads and re­quire com­pa­nies to “make rea­son­able ef­forts” to make sure that for­eign in­di­vid­u­als or en­ti­ties are not pur­chas­ing po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tise­ments in or­der to in­flu­ence Amer­i­cans.

The com­pa­nies haven’t com­mented on the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, but say they’re at work on the prob­lem. Last week Face­book said it will ver­ify po­lit­i­cal ad buy­ers in fed­eral elec­tions and build trans­parency tools to link ads to the Face­book pages of their spon­sors. Twit­ter has also said it will re­quire elec­tion-re­lated ads for can­di­dates to dis­close who is pay­ing for them and how they are tar­geted.

Google an­nounced on Mon­day that it will also ver­ify the iden­tity of elec­tion-re­lated ad buy­ers and iden­tify th­ese ad­ver­tis­ers pub­licly via an ad icon. It will pro­vide a pub­lic data­base of elec­tion ads de­tail­ing who pur­chased each one, and will pub­lish a trans­parency re­port on elec­tion ads as well.

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