Un­der pres­sure, so­cial me­dia gi­ants ac­knowl­edge med­dling

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By MARY CLARE JALONICK and ERIC TUCKER

WASH­ING­TON (AP) - In three ex­haus­tive hear­ings last week, ex­ec­u­tives from Face­book, Twit­ter and Google ac­knowl­edged that their plat­forms were used by Rus­sia to try and cre­ate di­vi­sion over such dis­parate is­sues as im­mi­gra­tion, gun con­trol and pol­i­tics. House in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­leased a trove of Face­book and Twit­ter ads that showed just how ex­tra­or­di­nary the cy­ber in­tru­sion was.

The com­pa­nies' ad­mis­sions and dis­clo­sures over the last sev­eral months have given con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors one of their first real wins in the Rus­sia probes. The com­mit­tees have been frus­trated by de­lays - and over­shad­owed by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller - since they launched probes into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion ear­lier this year. Ini­tially dis­mis­sive of Rus­sia's threat, all three com­pa­nies have pledged im­prove­ments since law­mak­ers ramped up pres­sure and called them to tes­tify.

It's un­clear what next steps Congress will take. The top Demo­crat on the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence panel, Vir­ginia Sen. Mark Warner, has co-spon­sored leg­is­la­tion that would bring po­lit­i­cal ad rules from TV, ra­dio and print to the in­ter­net. Warner calls it ``the light­est touch pos­si­ble,'' but many Repub­li­cans have been luke­warm.

Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Adam Schiff, the se­nior Demo­crat on the House in­tel­li­gence panel, said he thinks such ad­ver­tis­ing. reg­u­la­tions for so­cial me­dia are “in­evitable,” but noted that many of the fixes will come down to the com­pa­nies' own so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“Congress isn't go­ing to pre­scribe an al­go­rithm, so there are lim­its to what we can fea­si­bly do,” Schiff said af­ter his com­mit­tee's hear­ing Wed­nes­day.

The few dozen ads are a sam­pling from more than 3,000 Rus­sia-linked ads Face­book had turned over to the com­mit­tee. Seen by mil­lions of peo­ple, they en­cour­aged street demon­stra­tions against Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton and fos­tered sup­port and op­po­si­tion to Bernie San­ders, Mus­lims, gays, blacks and the icons of the Civil Rights move­ment.

The ads un­der­score how for­eign agents sought to sow con­fu­sion, anger and dis­cord among Amer­i­cans through mes­sages on hot-but­ton top­ics. U.S. in­tel­li­gence ser­vices say the Rus­sian use of so­cial me­dia was part of a broad ef­fort to sway the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in fa­vor of Trump. Mueller is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the Krem­lin worked with the Trump cam­paign to in­flu­ence the elec­tion.

Many of the ads also show care­ful tar­get­ing, with mes­sages geared to­ward par­tic­u­lar au­di­ences. One ad, aimed at those with in­ter­ests in civil rights and their lead­ers, high­lights a man who claims to be Bill Clin­ton's il­le­git­i­mate son. An­other video par­o­dy­ing Trump was tar­geted at blacks who also are in­ter­ested in Black­News.com, Huf­fPost Pol­i­tics or Huf­fPost Black Voices.

In prepa­ra­tion for hear­ings this week, Face­book dis­closed that con­tent gen­er­ated by a Rus­sian group, the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, po­ten­tially reached as many as 126 mil­lion users. Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives said that go­ing for­ward they would ver­ify po­lit­i­cal ad buy­ers in fed­eral elec­tions, re­quir­ing them to re­veal cor­rect names and lo­ca­tions. The site will also cre­ate new graph­ics where users can click on the ads and find out more about who's be­hind them.

But that did not pre­vent hours of ques­tion­ing dur­ing two days of hear­ings, with law­mak­ers ex­press­ing ex­as­per­a­tion at the seem­ing in­abil­ity to thwart for­eign in­ter­ven­tion.

At one point, Sen. Al Franken put his head in his hands af­ter he couldn't get all the com­pa­nies to com­mit to not ac­cept­ing po­lit­i­cal ads bought with for­eign cur­rency. Sev­eral ads tout­ing Face­book pages called Back the Badge,” “Be­ing Pa­tri­otic,” “Black­tivist,” “South United” and “Woke Blacks” were la­beled as be­ing paid for in rubles us­ing Qiwi, a Moscow­based pay­ment provider that aims to serve “the new gen­er­a­tion in Rus­sia'' and for­mer Rus­sian republics, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany's web­site. “Google has all knowl­edge that man has ever de­vel­oped,” the Min­nesota Demo­crat said. ``You can't put to­gether rubles with a po­lit­i­cal ad and go like, `Hmmm, those data points spell out some­thing pretty bad?’”

Be­sides the ads re­leased by law­mak­ers on the House in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, Democrats on the panel also re­leased four tweets from RT, a Rus­sian state-spon­sored tele­vi­sion net­work, and nearly 3,000 Twit­ter han­dles ac­tive dur­ing the final months of the elec­tion.

Taken to­gether, they show how ac­tual news events and sto­ries helped shape sur­rep­ti­tious Rus­sian mes­sag­ing.

One ad­ver­tise­ment cited a real Oc­to­ber 2016 news story - about a gun­man's bat­tle with Bos­ton po­lice of­fi­cers - then used it to at­tack Hil­lary Clin­ton as "the main hard­liner against cops” and to pro­mote Trump as the can­di­date who can “de­fend the po­lice from ter­ror­ists.”

Three of the tweets ref­er­enced Clin­ton, in­clud­ing one that linked to an RT story about the re­lease of a batch of hacked emails from her cam­paign chair­man, John Podesta.

Some 34,000 Trump sup­port­ers were shown an ad call­ing for Clin­ton's re­moval from the bal­lot, cit­ing “dy­nas­tic suc­ces­sion of the Clin­ton fam­ily” as a breach of core prin­ci­ples laid out by the Found­ing Fa­thers. Click­ing on it took Face­book users to a pe­ti­tion at White­House.gov.

Though U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials be­lieve the so­cial me­dia ef­fort was aimed at aid­ing Trump, there are other in­di­ca­tions it was in­tended to sow gen­eral di­vi­sions.

One ad pro­moted a Nov. 12 anti-Trump rally in New York City, ti­tled “Not My Pres­i­dent.” Large anti-Trump ral­lies ac­tu­ally did take place around the coun­try that day in ma­jor Amer­i­can cities. That doesn't mean the Rus­sian ac­counts planned the events, but rather that they were pig­gy­back­ing on ex­ist­ing protests and pro­mot­ing them to like-minded peo­ple.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF CTV

So­cial me­dia gi­ants ac­knowl­edge med­dling

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