The two topics under the spotlight were made clear in the name of the Committee - Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online - but while some token attention was paid to the first part of that, it was the role of Vladimir Putin’s social media experts in the US Presidential Election that led to the most fiery exchanges.
While there has been an increasingly tense mood developing between politicos and techies over the societal responsibilities of social media platform providers, Graham actually struck a relatively conciliatory tone to begin with, telling the representatives of the three firms present that they have “enriched America”. But their platforms are a double-edged sword, he added:
The bottom line is these technologies also can be used to undermine our democracy and put our nation at risk. The platforms that…add value to individual American lives and to our country also can be used by terrorists to recruit in cyberworld people to their cause, can be used by foreign governments. We have seen an example of that in 2016, to create chaos within our democracy.
But he insisted that the Senate hearing wasn’t about taking down social media providers, but trying to find ways to “help you”:
I believe that each of you in your own way are taking these problems seriously. The one thing I can say without a doubt, what we are doing collectively is not working…The challenge of this hearing and this focus is how do we keep the good, and deal with the bad. We'll never be 100 percent perfect, but the goal is to be better than we are today.
To highlight the scale of the issue under investigation, the hearing did provide a useful vehicle to pull together some alarming stats:
- Twitter has said it has found 2,752 accounts controlled by Russians, while more than 36,000 Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the election.
- Google said that 1,108 videos with 43 hours of content related to the Russian effort have been found to date on YouTube, as well as $4,700 worth of Russian search and display ads.
- Facebook reckons that 126 million Americans might have been exposed to content generated by the Russian government in the weeks running up to the election. Given the closeness of the race and the fact that a total of 139 million people actually voted, that isn’t good news.
Despite the ‘we want to help’ message from the hearing’s chairman, it was obvious that the subsequent Q&A would end up taking a nastier turn. With that in mind, the three social media firms went in ‘lawyered-up’, a move that can be interpreted as pragmatic and sensible on their part or downright defensive.
Nonetheless the chosen representatives were Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch and Google director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado. Their roles inevably led to lawyer answers, designed to hedge bets, commit to nothing and, in the process, enflame irritated political inquisitors.
For example, Google’s Salgado was asked whether he accepted that the firm is essentially equivalent to a newspaper, given its role in diseminating news. As seen before with Facebook, being tagged as news organization is something that no social media platform wants to see happen as it brings them under the purview of some very different regulatory obligations and responsibilities.
So Salgado trotted out the entirely predictable line:
We are not a newspaper. We are a platform that shares information.
Now while there are arguments to be made both pro and con this idea, the impression given here is yet again of a defensive posture being adopted. There was more to come. In one particularly tense exchange Senator Al Franken asked a very simple question - why did it take do long for Facebook et al to spot what was happening?:
I want to understand why no one seems to have caught on to the Russian effort earlier. How did Facebook which, prides itself on being able to process billions of data points ... somehow not make the connection that ads paid for by rubbles were paid for by Russians. Those are two data points. How could you not connect those two dots?”
To which Facebook Stretch gave the entirely unsatisfactory response:
In hindsight we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed.
Facebook got a particularly hard time under questioning, but Stretch stuck to a pattern of calm legal responses. For example, Senator Mazie Hirono asked:
In an election where a total of about 115,000 votes would have changed the outcome, can you say that the false and misleading propaganda people saw on your Facebook didn’t have an impact on the election?
To which Stretch responded:
We’re not well positioned to know why any one person or an entire electorate voted the way that it did.
The problem with this response is that, while it doesn’t incriminate Facebook or commit the firm to any position that it might later regret, it smacks dangerously of being complacent. That in turn risks irritating the political establishment and making it easier for advocates of tougher regulation to make their case. If social media providers won’t take this seriously, then they will have to be made to etc etc.
There is already the prospect of new legislation, dubbed the Honest Ads Act, which would force tech companies to disclose information about political ads sold and distributed on their networks. Digital platforms with more than 50 million monthly viewers would be required to create a public database of political ads purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500. Providers would have to make public the ad, a description of the targeted audience, the number of views it generated, the date and time it ran, its price and contact information for the purchaser.
This is being pitched in bi-partisan manner by Democrat Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator John McCain and is likely to have strong support across the aisle. But again, there was equivocation and stalling to this prospect/threat (delete as applicable) from the social media firms representatives, none of whom committed to supporting such an Act.
In reality, nothing particularly concrete was likely to emerge from yesterday’s opening hearing. But while it didn’t turn into the bear-baiting that it could easily have ended up as, the social media firms did little to help their cause and left the session clearly on the back foot in the debate about what needs to be done. As Twitter’s Edgett put it:
I’ve learned that we have a lot more work to do.
You do indeed. And for the sake of everyone, it’s time to focus on doing. This particular hearing focused on the US Election, but there are wider implications. There was an admission from Facebook that the likes of North Korea could well replicate the Russian effort in the future - a suggestion that was met with a bland statement about the borderless nature of the internet.
And beyond the US, what happened there inevitably raises other questions. Could an outside agency have influenced the UK Brexit vote, for example? It’s essential that a calm, sensible and open debate takes place around what happened in the US. It is inevitable that new regulatory regimes will emerge in the near future. We need those to be the right ones and not knee-jerk legislating born of frustration fuelled by ass-covering social media firms in denial.