Congressional Scrutiny Reveals Social Media Platforms Vulnerable to Foreign Influence

November 3, 2017 Updated: November 5, 2017

A marathon series of congressional hearings on Russian election interference through social media reveal that plenty of weaknesses and vulnerabilities exist within Facebook, Twitter, and Google that allowed them to be exploited by foreign actors in the 2016 U.S. election cycle.

After a hearing before a Senate judiciary subcommittee on Oct. 31, the general counsels of Facebook, Twitter, and Google again appeared on Capitol Hill to face questions from the Senate and House intelligence committees on the morning and afternoon respectively on Nov. 1.

Many of the exchanges during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing focused on the reiterations of partisan positions. Senators either defended Trump or asserted that his narrow victory could have been the result of Russian interference through social media platforms.

Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, strongly bashed the social media giants for their sluggish response to the Congressional investigation into Russian election interference. Another Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who represents the companies’ home of California, bashed the three tech giants for allowing Russian operations to influence their platforms and delivered a stern warning: “You’re the ones who have to do something about it. Or we will.”

On the other hand, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida stressed that the real intent of Russian operations was to create division and chaos, rather than a determined effort to help elect Trump. Rubio, however, noted that the three tech giants—by their own admission—would only ban accounts that misrepresented their owners’ identities. Russia or any other country could launch open propaganda campaigns to spread misinformation to Americans, and doing so would even be permissible, as long as those making the posts declared their identities.

“We don’t have state-sponsored manipulation of elections as one of our rules,” said Twitter’s lawyer Sean Edgett. “The other rules, like [a ban on] inflammatory ad content, would take down most of these posts, but we don’t outright ban it.”

During the hearing on Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee released a series of examples of the incendiary ads on Facebook purchased by Russian influence operations. Most of them focused on exploiting divisive issues involving identity politics, such as race, religion, and immigration.

Examples of Russian-paid ads during the 2016 election purposefully created to foment division and chaos in the United States. (House Intelligence Committee)

The Russian ads targeted both Republicans and Democrats and were paid for in rubles. They catered to both Black Lives Matter supporters as well as white nationalists, with the creation of division seeming to be the primary tactic. Many ads targeted Clinton but switched to attacking Trump immediately after the election.

One example was an October 2016 ad from “South United,” a now-suspended Facebook group, which depicts a Confederate Flag with the accompanying text: “Heritage, not hate. The South will rise again!” Costing approximately $1,300, the post garnered roughly 40,000 clicks.

In another example, it was revealed that two Facebook pages—both later confirmed to be Russian creations—artificially fomented dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston on May 21, 2016, according to information released by Republican Sen. Richard Burr. This was achieved by organizing a “Stop Islamification of Texas” rally and a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place and time. Russians reportedly only paid a bargain price of $200 on Facebook to advertise the two rallies that pit Texans against each other.

Screenshots released by Sen. Richard Burr showing Russian-linked Facebook pages that instigated dueling anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim rallies at the same place and same time on May 21, 2016, in Houston. (Sen. Richard Burr)

The House Intelligence Committee was told there was no clear alignment of interest between the Russian-paid ads and any other advertisers, including the Trump campaign. “We have not seen overlap in the targeting, that was relatively rudimentary, used in the [Russian] ads that we’ve disclosed and any other advertiser that’s been operative on the site, including the Trump campaign,” said Facebook’s lawyer Colin Stretch. Lawyers of Twitter and Google didn’t provide definitive answers to this question.

The amount Russians paid for their ads was a tiny fraction compared to what the Clinton and the Trump campaigns paid. Internet Research Agency, the principal “troll farm” used by Russian influence operations, spent just $46,000, or 0.05 percent as much on Facebook ads as the combined spending of the Clinton and Trump campaigns. The numbers were revealed by Facebook during the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Part of the reason why Russian-paid ads were considerably cheaper and more successful in garnering views and clicks compared to other paid ads could be that they specifically targeted incendiary issues that provoke anger and strong sentiments related to identity politics.

According to lawmakers, Facebook’s algorithm, which gives a cheaper rate to advertisers if their ads perform well, might have been exploited by Russians to pay very little to spread ads that incite hatred, although Facebook’s Colin Stretch insisted that the data on this hypothesis is “mixed.”

Despite two days of intense hearings, it is unclear what next steps Congress will take to ensure the platforms of the three big tech giants will not be exploited again. Warner has put forward an “Honest Ads Act” that would regulate internet ads in the same way TV, radio, and print ads are being regulated. The act, however, has already raised free speech concerns and so far only received lackluster support from the Republicans, as reported by Wall Street Journal.

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