Tech com­pa­nies find more signs of Rus­sian elec­tion ac­tiv­ity

Sun.Star Pampanga - - TECHNEWS! -

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ma­jor tech com­pa­nies plan to tell Congress Tues­day that they have found ad­di­tional ev­i­dence of Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity on their ser­vices sur­round­ing the 2016 U.S. elec­tion.

Facebook, for in­stance, says a Rus­sian group posted more than 80,000 times on its ser­vice dur­ing and af­ter the elec­tion, po­ten­tially reach­ing as many as 126 mil­lion users. The com­pany plans to dis­close these num­bers to the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee on Tues­day, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the tes­ti­mony. The per­son de­clined to be named be­cause the com­mit­tee has not of­fi­cially re­leased the tes­ti­mony.

Twit­ter plans to tell the same com­mit­tee that it has un­cov­ered and shut down 2,752 ac­counts linked to the same group, Rus­sia’s In­ter­net 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, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter. This per­son re­quested anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about the new find­ings ahead of the hear­ing on Tues­day.

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.

THREE HEAR­INGS IN TWO DAYS

The com­pa­nies are set to tes­tify at three hear­ings Tues­day and Wed­nes­day as part of con­gres­sional probes of Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence.

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s gen­eral coun­sel, plans to tell the Ju­di­ciary panel that 120 pages set up by the Rus­sian agency posted re­peat­edly be­tween Jan­uary 2015 and Au­gust 2017. The com­pany es­ti­mates that roughly 29 mil­lion peo­ple were di­rectly “served” posts in their news feeds from the agency over that time. Those posts then spread widely on Facebook, al­though Stretch’s pre­pared tes­ti­mony makes clear that many of the 126 mil­lion peo­ple reached this way may not have seen the posts.

These “or­ganic” posts that ap­peared in users’ news feeds are dis­tinct from more than 3,000 ad­ver­tise­ments linked to the agency that Facebook has al­ready turned 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.

On Twit­ter, the Rus­sialinked 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 Rus­sia To­day, or RT.

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 ex­ter­nal re­search into po­lit­i­cal uses of Twit­ter.

Google said that two ac­counts linked to the Rus­sian group spent $4,700 on ads 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.

PREEMPTING REG­U­LA­TION

A bill un­veiled ear­lier this month 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.

The com­pa­nies have been un­der con­stant pres­sure from Congress since it was first re­vealed ear­lier this year that Rus­sians had in­fil­trated some of their plat­forms. Facebook has al­ready spent more than $8.4 mil­lion lob­by­ing the gov­ern­ment this year, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral dis­clo­sure forms.

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. They will al­most cer­tainly do what they can to con­vince law­mak­ers that they can fix the prob­lem on their own, with­out the need for reg­u­la­tion.

BE­YOND ADS

The is­sue goes far be­yond ads. Fake news, fake events, pro­pa­ganda and other mis­in­for­ma­tion spread far and wide on so­cial me­dia ser­vices in 2016 with­out the need for paid ad­ver­tise­ments. But reg­u­lat­ing on­line speech would be more dif­fi­cult for U.S. law­mak­ers.

In ad­di­tion, an­a­lysts and on­line speech ad­vo­cates have warned that polic­ing in­ter­net elec­tion ads is not the same thing as do­ing so in print news­pa­pers or on TV. Au­to­mated ad­ver­tis­ing plat­forms al­low ba­si­cally any­one with an in­ter­net ac­count and a credit card to place an ad with lit­tle or no over­sight from the com­pa­nies.

Facebook has said it is build­ing ma­chine learn­ing tools to ad­dress this is­sue, but didn’t pro­vide de­tails.

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