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Live updates: Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before Congress again

Tech companies will take questions from the Senate and House Intel Committees on Wednesday.

Alex Wong / Getty

Take two.

Facebook, Google and Twitter executives are back in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to take questions from Congress on how Russian sources used their respective platforms to try and influence last year’s presidential election.

All three companies answered questions from another congressional committee on Tuesday — a Senate Judiciary subcommittee focused on crime and terrorism. The key takeaways: These tech companies, Facebook in particular, have a lot more power than folks may have realized.

General counsels from the three tech giants will take more questions from the Senate and House Intelligence Committees; the Senate Intel Committee hearing is up first, and starts at 6:30 am PT / 9:30 am ET.

Like yesterday, we’ll provide live updates and analysis right here — please follow along!

If you want some pre-hearing reading material:

You can watch with us with the PBS NewsHour’s livestream below.


9:28 am ET: Welcome back, y’all! In a few minutes, the Senate Intelligence Committee is set to grill Facebook, Google and Twitter on their handling of Russia’s disinformation efforts during the 2016 election.


9:30 am ET: The Senate Intelligence Committee hasn’t officially called the hearing to order. (We’re running a little late.) But the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, is about to lay into executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter.

In remarks shared in advance with Recode, Warner plans to slam the tech giants for failing to perform a more exhaustive search of their data to determine the extent of Russia’s disinformation campaign.

Recall that Facebook has reported that the Internet Research Agency, an army of Russian government-backed trolls, reached roughly 126 million Americans around Election Day. To Warner, though, the fear is it’s only the tip of the iceberg. “I doubt that the so-called Internet Research Agency represents the only Russian trolls out there,” he plans to say. “Facebook has more work to do to see how deep this goes, including looking into the reach of the IRA-backed Instagram posts, which represent another 120,000 pieces of content.”

With Twitter, the issue is that it “seems to be vastly underestimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation.” And at Google, the lawmaker raised the fact that “search algorithms continue to have problems in surfacing fake news or propaganda.” That includes the fact that “false stories and unsubstantiated rumors” — though the origins are unclear — “were elevated on Google Search during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas,” he intends to say.

Warner shared some of those same concerns during an earlier interview with Recode this week.


9:31 am ET: Interestingly, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters is here in the audience. You don’t often see lawmakers in the audience at congressional hearings, particularly those held by committees in another chamber.


9:36 am ET: Representing the tech companies today: Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch; Google’s General Counsel Kent Walker; and Twitter’s Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett. Stretch and Edgett were here yesterday, but Google sent a separate executive, Richard Salgado, to yesterday’s hearing. Here’s more info on all three of the lawyers testifying today.


9:42 am ET: Oh, and while we’re listening to opening remarks from the Senators (more on that shortly), a reminder that Facebook also scheduled its earnings today. Which seems coincidentally timed ...


9:45 am ET: As he gaveled in the hearing, the Republican leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Richard Burr — issued a broadside against reporters and others who have tried to explicitly link Russia’s disinformation campaign to the election of Donald Trump as president.

To Burr, that narrative is too simplistic and reports tying the two together lack evidence. “What we cannot do,” he said, “is calculate the impact foreign media had on social media in this election.”

Some of Burr’s criticisms focused on reports that suggested Facebook ads purchased by Russian agents specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin in a bid to boost Trump. In reality, the GOP lawmaker said, media actually had “failed” to put those and other ads into the right “frame of reference.” For example, Burr said more ads on Facebook actually targeted the state of Maryland. And a notable slice of the 3,000 total ads purchased by Kremlin trolls had been viewed after Election Day.

To be sure, Burr noted that Russian interference, conspiracy-minded posts, fake news and worse do present major threats to tech giants and the country alike. “Very clearly, this kind of national security vulnerability represents an unacceptable risk, and your companies have a responsibility to reduce that vulnerability,” he said.

Still, Burr charged, “this story does not simplify that easily.” And in a sign of the likely partisan divisions to come, he later added: “This isn’t about re-litigating the 2016 presidential election.”


9:49 am ET: Burr did not refer to any publications or reporters by name during his critical opening statement. In talking about Michigan and Wisconsin, however, he may have been targeting a report by CNN in early October.

Many tech types have grumbled privately, for weeks, about that story for lacking a lot of context.


9:52 am ET: Warner is ripping into all three companies right now. He referred to their platforms as a “dark underbelly” online, and has made it very clear he believes there is more information out there that hasn’t been uncovered.


9:56 am ET: And then Warner ripped the White House. “The U.S. government has thus far proven incapable of adapting to meet this 21st century challenge,” he began. “Unfortunately, I believe this effort is suffering, in part, because of a lack of leadership at the top.”

“We have a president who remains unwilling to acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy,” the senator continued. “President Trump should stop actively delegitimizing American journalism and acknowledge and address this real threat posed by Russian propaganda.”


9:58 am ET: The tech companies are now providing their opening remarks. Like yesterday, Facebook’s Stretch is up first. During Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook received more questions and attention than either of the other companies.

It sounds like Stretch’s opening remarks are very similar to the ones he delivered yesterday. You can read some of the highlights here. But the key points he is trying to hammer home: These posts and ads from Russia were just a small amount of the overall content on Facebook, but even so, Facebook is taking this very seriously. That will be a theme throughout the day. That this content from Russian accounts was just a drop in the bucket.


10:02 am ET: Twitter up next. Edgett is delivering his opening remarks. Again, they sound very similar to what we heard yesterday: We take this seriously, and we are strengthening our systems. We’ll be better.

Twitter admitted yesterday that it has found around 2,700 accounts on its platform with ties to Russia. The original investigation it performed last month turned up only about 200 accounts. Their investigation is still ongoing, so it’s possible this number could continue to climb.


10:06 am ET: And here is Kent Walker from Google. We haven’t heard from him yet this week. He started by acknowledging yesterday’s terror attack in New York City. (Both Warner and Burr did this earlier as well.)

Facebook, Google And Twitter Executives Testify To Senate Select Intel Committee On Preventing Foreign Interference In Elections
General Counsel for Twitter Sean Edgett (L), and Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Google Kent Walker (R)
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Walker is detailing some of the features Google uses to try and keep people safe from hackers, and how Google will label fake news in Google Search results. He also says that misinformation campaigns are “not new,” and that Google will start offering more transparency around political ads beginning next year. Walker, like Stretch and Edgett, says any activity from foreign governments was “relatively limited,” but that Google is taking it seriously.

Again, the general framework here from the tech companies: The content from Russian accounts was a drop in the bucket, but we are taking it seriously nonetheless.


10:13 am ET: Sen. Burr is now showing off some examples of the Russian ads posted on Facebook to try and sway voter opinion during the election. The first ad mentioned was from a group called “Heart of Texas,” which is the same Facebook group senators from the Senate Judiciary subcommittee mentioned during yesterday’s hearing. You can see some of those ads here.

The ad Burr highlighted was for a rally, which was scheduled at the same time and place as another, pro-Muslim event, also created by a Russian account. The idea, according to Burr, was to get the two groups in the same place at the same time to generate friction.


10:22 am ET: One thing we’ve noticed in Twitter’s recent testimony are new numbers detailing voter suppression efforts that took place on the service. Twitter talked about this yesterday — there were a number of accounts on Twitter last fall that encouraged people to “vote by text,” for example, which is not a valid way to vote in a U.S. election. Twitter says the company found and banned 106 accounts for creating more than 700 “vote-by-text” tweets. There were hundreds of other tweets from hundreds of other accounts that were “inaccessible, pending deletion.” (We’re not entirely clear what that means.)

The big question that still remains: How many people actually tried to vote via text or Twitter? We still don’t know, and may never know, but the examples of “vote-by-text” tweets we’ve seen so far have all been targeted to Hillary Clinton supporters.


10:24 am ET: Twitter says less than 5 percent of its accounts are bots. Burr isn’t convinced. And now, the company is going to have to provide data to the committee in writing explaining why researchers say that number is “higher than the five percent you’ve stated today.”


10:29 am ET: Facebook’s general counsel isn’t sure if the company has checked fully to see if the malicious accounts it took down ahead of France’s election had also targeted the United States.

“Yes, we are looking,” Stretch said, noting it “includes any evidence we’ve identified from those 30,000 accounts” it suspended in France.

But Warner wanted to know if the company finished its review, not if it’s in progress -- something Stretch could not answer. That only compounded Warner’s frustration, and he slammed Facebook given the fact the Senate’s hearing had been on the books for some time.


10:34 am ET: In case it isn’t clear, this hearing is already proving tougher for tech than the Senate Judiciary Committee’s probe yesterday. Burr and Warner have been much tougher on Facebook, Google and Twitter, and the scrutiny isn’t likely to lessen as the hearing continues.


10:36 am ET: Stretch just shared some new data after being prodded by Warner. Turns out that the 126 million U.S. Facebook users exposed to content from Russian accounts did not include users from Instagram. Stretch said that, since October 2016, Facebook has found an additional 16 million people who may have seen Russian content on Instagram. He says the company’s data is not as clear for posts prior to October 2016, but it is believed that if you go back further, an additional 4 million users may have also seen content from accounts with ties to Russia.

So 20 million new users saw content from Russian-backed accounts on Instagram. That brings the new total to “a little less than 150 million [people],” Stretch acknowledged.

When Facebook initially reported the 3,000 ads that came from Russian accounts, the company estimated that about 10 million people had seen them. Now we’re up to almost 150 million people.


10:42 am ET: Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein issued the sharpest rebuke yet to Facebook, Google and Twitter: “You bear the responsibility, you created these platforms, and now they’re being misused — and you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.”

“I’ve been very proud, and I know Sen. Harris is as well, to represent this tech community from California,” Feinstein began. “But I must say, I don’t think you get it.”

“What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change,” she continued, describing Russia’s disinformation campaign as tantamount to cyberwar. Then, she promised: “We are not going to go away, gentlemen.”


10:54 am ET: Sen. Marco Rubio asked Facebook and Twitter if there were any signs that these Russian accounts used “registered voter data” to customize their ad targeting for users.

“We haven’t seen evidence of that so far,” Edgett replied. Stretch said Facebook hasn’t either.

This was mentioned briefly yesterday as well during the other hearing. The interest here seems to be whether or not Russia received help from any campaigns in their efforts to target Americans with these posts or ads.


11:00am ET: Sen. Ron Wyden has an important point: Federal law gives tech companies the cover they need to pursue the worst actors — Russian or otherwise — on their platform.

For that reason, Wyden said at the hearing, “You need to stop paying lip service to shutting down bad actors using these accounts.”

Otherwise, Wyden just isn’t having it with Facebook, Google and Twitter. The Oregon Democrat is widely regarded for his tech expertise and generally stands with the industry. Today, though, he’s clear that they must do more. It is “self-evident in relation to the power your platforms now have [that] in the past election, you failed,” he charged.


11:06 am ET: It looks as though Russian trolls targeted Maine Gov. Paul LePage over the past two years.

In 2016, Kremlin-backed disinformation at times accused him of trying to “kill blacks,” and a year later, another Russia-tied page took aim at LePage’s critics, saying that “liberals are now acting like terrorists.”

In the eyes of GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who revealed the contents of those posts at the hearing, it’s another sign of the exploitative nature of Russia’s efforts.

By the way, LePage is an incredibly controversial Republican officeholder — and at times he’s even suggested he’s open to racial profiling. He is not up for re-election, as Collins acknowledged.


11:17 am ET: Sen. Martin Heinrich asked Twitter if it requires users to provide their real identity in order to create an account. (It does not.) Heinrich asked why Twitter allows people to sign up anonymously for accounts. Edgett said that it helps users speak freely, especially in areas where free speech can be difficult, like in areas of the world with oppressive governments.

Twitter’s approach here does help in those situations, but it has also created an environment that makes it easy for users to abuse and harass one another. It’s also led to millions of bot accounts, some of which (as we’ve learned), can be used for malicious purposes.

Facebook, Google And Twitter Executives Testify To Senate Select Intel Committee On Preventing Foreign Interference In Elections
General Counsel for Twitter Sean Edgett
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

11:25 am ET: The campaign teams for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent a combined $81 million on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election, the company acknowledged. Russia, by contrast, spent into the thousands of dollars on its ads.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, however, sought to seize on that comparison in an attempt to cast some doubt on his fellow lawmakers’ line of questioning so far. At one point, Blunt even muttered Russia’s ads on Facebook and elsewhere “probably got more attention here [in Congress] than they did” during the election.


11:34 am ET: Sen. Angus King is a little bit peeved that Facebook, Google and Twitter didn’t send their leaders to testify. “I’m disappointed that you’re here, and not your CEOs,” he told the trio of tech lawyers. “It’s fine to send general counsel, but I think if you could take a message back from this committee, if we go through this exercise again, we would appreciate seeing the top people who are actually making the decisions.”

And King also directed some of his ire toward the U.S. government and its handling of Russian disinformation. Specifically, he said there needed to be some sort of “cyberwar deterrent” to stop the Kremlin or others from trying such a campaign in the future.

“If they’re going to undertake a campaign like this, there will be a price to be paid, there will be results,” he said of such a policy. “Right now that doesn’t exist, and all of what the Russians did last year has basically been a free pass.”


Facebook, Google And Twitter Executives Testify To Senate Select Intel Committee On Preventing Foreign Interference In Elections Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

11:45 am ET: The companies were asked when they first became aware of Russian state actors using their platforms for nefarious activities. Facebook’s Stretch said it was “prior to and through the election,” and “as early as 2015.” He did, however, caveat that their initial understanding of Russia’s activity on Facebook was related more to traditional cybersecurity concerns, like account hacking, than misinformation and election meddling.


12:01 pm ET: Sen. Kamala Harris fired off what sounded like a simple question: How much did Facebook, Google and Twitter make from legitimate advertisements that ran on, before or near Russian disinformation?

All three companies, however, said they had no such estimate — a reply that led the lawmaker to lament that their uncertainty is “difficult to understand.”

Harris is a Democrat from California; she represents the state Silicon Valley calls home. Opening her line of questioning, she told the industry: “With great success comes great responsibility.”

And by the way, Harris came equipped with each tech giant’s 10-Q securities filings, which lists their corporate risks. Perhaps coincidentally, Facebook reports its quarterly earnings today.


12:14 pm ET: “We’re not producing the content.”

That was part of Edgett’s response when Sen. John Cornyn asked why Twitter, Facebook and Google shouldn’t be regulated and held legally responsible for the content on their sites in the same way newspapers and TV broadcasters are.

This is a debate that’s been ongoing for a long time. Are Facebook and Twitter media companies? Or are they simply platforms that provide a place for everyone else to share their work and thoughts?

They have long argued they are a platform for this very reason: It protects them from having to answer for and defend everything their users choose to post online. But the reality is that they are more media companies than they’d like to admit. Our colleague Peter Kafka explains it very clearly in this piece.


12:23 pm ET: How much do Facebook, Google and Twitter spend — as a percentage of revenue — on combating bots and other similar ills on their platforms? Democratic Sen. Jack Reed asked the question, but not one of the three companies had an answer. They pledged to provide more information in writing soon.


12:25 pm ET: Burr, the panel’s chairman, offered something of a warning to Facebook, Google and Twitter.

“I firmly believe all three of your companies have a new perspective on security,” he began. “The challenge is, if it fails, the impact of that failure is significantly different than it was in the 2016 election. I need you to know that up front.”

He told the tech giants they needed to do more to verify who’s spending money on ads, stressed they must do better to disclose ad spending data and encouraged them to seek help if they need “antitrust waivers” to work with each other to combat Russian disinformation.


12:29 pm ET: And with that, roughly three hours later, the Senate Intelligence Committee has wrapped up its grilling of the three tech giants.

That means we’re signing off. But, remember, Congress isn’t yet done with its probe. The House Intelligence Committee is set to kick off its own hearing starting at 2 pm ET/11 am PT, which you can watch here. (We’ll cover any highlights at Recode.)

Thanks for joining us.


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