US social media tech giants under fire from Washington’s lawmakers

Picture: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Tech companies are not likely to be off the hook in the Russia investigation for some time to come, writes, Bette Browne 

THE fallout from the US probe into Russian interference in the election of President Donald Trump is now threatening the might of the tech giants of social media in a showdown with Washington lawmakers who want to regulate political ads on the internet.

The face-off comes amid mounting concern in the US Congress over the lack of advertising transparency and how companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have ended up profiting, however unwittingly, from Russia’s campaign to spread disinformation on their sites and meddle in the US election.

Facebook now says 126m people in the US may have seen such political posts produced by Russian-government-backed agents. To put this figure in context, the number who voted in the election a year ago this month was 139m.

The scale of the Russian advertising campaign has emerged at congressional hearings this week in connection with a new bill, called the Honest Ads Act, which aims to help prevent foreign entities from influencing US elections. The bill would extend political advertising disclosure laws that already govern radio and television to also cover ads placed on platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Such ads are a big and booming business. Digital advertising reached $1.4bn in the 2016 election, a more than 750% increase from 2012, and at least 85% of such spending went to Google and Facebook.

Indeed, Facebook and Google are two of the five richest corporations in the US and both hold practical monopolies in their areas of expertise in social media. Facebook alone has 5m different advertisers each month.

One of the senators shepherding the bill through congress, Democratic Senator Mark Warner, said $150,000 in Facebook ads bought in Russian rubles are the “tip of the iceberg” of what may have happened.

Twitter earned $1.9m (€1.6m) from RT, the Russian government-funded news network, since 2011 and says it will now use this money to support external research into political uses of Twitter.

Under the Honest Ads Act that was proposed in October by Warner, along with fellow Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican senator John McCain, the companies would also have to release information on who the ads were targeted at, as well as information on the buyer and the rates charged for the ads.

The proposed regulations would bring disclosure rules more in line with how political ads are regulated in print and on television, and would apply to any platform with more than 50m monthly viewers.

The companies would be required to keep and release data on anyone spending more than $500 on political ads in a year.

The legislation’s future in Congress is unclear, though Mr Warner said he believed a number of Republicans would support it, as well as Democrats.

And, as the legislation continues to make its way through Congress, top lawyers for Facebook, Twitter, and Google were busy trying to convince lawmakers this week that they are already taking steps to tackle the issue, citing details of the findings of their own internal investigations. They are also indicating they may agree to work out a disclosure solution with Congress for paid political ads online.

As criticism of Facebook intensified in recent weeks, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company would make voluntary changes to how it handles political ads, in a move that may have been an attempt to head off forced regulation by Washington.

But lawmakers’ concerns go beyond ads and they are also focusing on so-called “organic posts”—stories, status updates, or other content that is published and shared on social media sites without cost.

At Facebook, for example, Russian trolls apparently created 80,000 pieces of such organic content between January 2015 and
August 2017. Americans saw those posts directly in their news feed over that two-year period.

Those users also liked, shared, and followed these posts and pages, exposing them to their friends, meaning 126m users in total would have seen at least some of this Russian-generated content.

One of biggest challenges thus facing Google, Facebook and Twitter is how they handle this
organic content, including videos uploaded by RT, Russia’s government-funded news network.

RT videos have millions of views on YouTube. In Google’s investigation, however, the tech giant said it “found no evidence of manipulation of our platform or policy
violations”. As a result, Google said that RT and other state-sponsored media outlets are still “subject to our standard rules”. Twitter, for its part, recently banned RT from advertising on its platform, although it is still allowed to tweet there.

But even if the Honest Ads Act makes its way successfully through Congress, some are sceptical about its effectiveness in the nebulous world of social media were identities can easily and quickly be concealed, clouded and recreated by tech-savvy practitioners.

Some of the exploits of Russian trolls — people who post inflammatory material on social platforms — were recently revealed by the Russian business publication RBC in an investigation of Russia’s best-known “troll factory”, the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

The magazine, which the Kremlin has frequently tried to muzzle, reported that the Internet Research Agency ran at least 120 social network communities in the US and found the messages were frequently retweeted by Trump campaign members.

The RBC investigation also documented a history of trolls easily circumventing obstacles that were set up by the social networks.

It was the activities of the Internet Research Agency that Facebook revealed to US authorities investigating Russian meddling. Subsequently, all of the troll factory’s communities and accounts on Facebook were closed in June 2015, after The New York Times first wrote about it.

However, Bloomberg reported the trolling operation was soon up and running again.

“The only way to prevent the abuse of digital platforms,” it said, “is to make them introduce tough identification rules and cut off anonymous and semi-anonymous payment methods for advertisers.”

Posts from three of these now-removed Facebook groups created by the Internet Research Agency suggest Russia sought not only to meddle in US politics but also to encourage ideologically opposed groups to act out violently against one another even after Trump’s election.

The posts are part of a database compiled by Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who tracks and analyses Russian propaganda.

For example, ‘Being Patriotic’, a group that regularly posted content praising Donald Trump’s candidacy, stated in an April 2016 post that Black Lives Matter activists who disrespected the American flag should be “immediately shot”. The account garnered about 200,000 followers before it was shut down.

IN recent days, a powerful Democratic senator from Silicon Valley’s own backyard has upped the pressure on the big tech companies. Dianne Feinstein demanded on October 27 that Facebook and Twitter turn over reams of new data about Russian disinformation spread on their platforms during the US election.

She wants information about any Russian-connected user accounts, pages, organic content and ads that targeted their efforts at the US. And with Twitter in particular, she wants the company to share some direct messages sent and received by Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiIeaks.

Ms Feinstein is demanding answers by November 6. So tech companies are not likely to be off the hook in the Russia investigation for some time to come.

In the meantime, they may not find much comfort either in Mr Trump’s recent observation in an interview, in which he opined: “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media.”

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