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We have heard a lot this year about Russia and its attempt to use social media to influence the 2016 presidential elections. But new revelations today about the role of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter add to the issue.
Hari Sreenivasan has our report.
In fact, officials with Twitter met behind closed doors today with staff on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about Russian involvement in the election.
The New York Times reported that Russia may have used Twitter even more extensively to influence the election, including using automated message accounts, or bots, to spread false information and promote stories about e-mails by Democratic operatives.
It comes after Facebook recently announced it will give congressional investigators some 3,000 political ads purchased by Russian propaganda groups.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the spread of false information on his platform, saying in a statement — quote — "After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea that misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive, and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive."
Congressman Adam Schiff is a Democrat from California and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, which intends to have a hearing with tech companies soon.
Representative Schiff, anything you can say publicly about your conversation with Twitter today?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.:
They came in and gave a preliminary briefing to our staff. And I view it really as the first of many briefings on what they know now about the extent of Russian use of Twitter as a medium of their active measures campaign.
But I think there's a lot yet for them to learn about the use of their own platform, and, obviously, the American public as well. It will be, I think, important during our hearing next month with these companies to ask them, you know, how rigorous was their investigation, what are they able to tell us at this point, and what more work needs to be done, because I think that we only still have scratched thee surface in terms of our knowledge of the extent of Russian use of Twitter and Facebook, for that matter.
Do we know if the scale of spending was on the same as Facebook?
Twitter announced today that R.T., the Russian media arm, has spent some $274,000 in ads purchased in 2016. But beyond that, did they say anything else?
REP. ADAM SCHIFF:
Well, this was a subject of our discussion as well.
They were able to point to that R.T. advertising. I don't know whether they have identified other advertising. Obviously, that is of keen interest to us.
It is one thing when Twitter users get something passed to them by R.T., and they can put that in context and say, OK, this is the Russian propaganda position. It's far more pernicious when those tweets are coming, and you can't identify the source or they are misrepresenting the source.
I don't think they have a good handle on that yet. I don't think they fully know whether there was paid advertising that was using a pseudonym, and, perhaps even more significant, the extent of Russian bots that were used to propagate information in the campaign.
What is your understanding of how significant the influence of these platforms were and how they manipulated the election?
Well, just in the little we know in terms of the use of Facebook and Twitter, I think we can tell that it is significant.
But we don't really have a sense of the full dimension. If you look at what Facebook and Twitter have revealed already, we know about advertising. We know about the use of these bots. But we don't know much about the downstream consequences of each, that is, the advertising, for example, that Facebook did, those that showed interest in that advertising, what kind of messages were sent to them.
And how well-coordinated was the Facebook and Twitter campaign, in the sense of those that responded on Facebook? Were they then the target of tweets from that same Russian entity in St. Petersburg?
So, there is a great deal we have yet to learn about this.
And to what level have you seen any evidence of collusion between what these Russian troll farms bought on social media, on Twitter and Facebook, and the Trump campaign?
Well, we're obviously bringing people in from the campaign. We're also bringing in people from the digital arm of the campaign.
We have a great many questions for them. But we're also trying to approach this from the other side in, and that is, can the social media companies tell us more about the targeting of their ads, about the targeting of these tweets?
Is that — is it of a level of sophistication that you couldn't perform unless you had the data analytics of the campaign? So we're trying to approach it from both sides. At this point, I don't think we're ready to draw any conclusions.
Are you lacking for any sort of an overlap in exactly how the political campaign targeted individuals on these platforms and how perhaps the Russians did, to rule out or rule in whether there was any coordination?
We want to know, look, if the campaign was targeting these precincts or this demographic with these specific messages, is that something that is also reflective in what the Russians were doing at the same time?
So, this is exactly what we're looking at in terms of trying to prove or disprove whether there was any coordination. I think it's also important, though, that we recognize that, on both these platforms, a big part of what the Russians did was simply turn one American against another.
Now, the divisive issues that they chose and the cynical way they did it may have been to the advantage of the Trump campaign. But the broader objective here was to weaken our democracy, to accentuate these divisions. And it's worth all Americans recognizing the Russians view this as a vulnerability. We need to view this as a vulnerability as well.
Representative Schiff, a colleague of yours, Senator Lankford, also said this morning that the groups that are tracking some of these Russian accounts were actually involved actively in conversations about Black Lives Matter or, even just as recently as last weekend, the take a knee or the boycott the NFL hashtags that were trending.
You know, I think that's right, in the sense that, in the most cynical of ways, the Russians would use these issues, whether it is Black Lives Matter.
I haven't seen the examples yet in terms of the NFL, but it wouldn't surprise me at all. This is what they do. They take these very hot issues in the United States. They target them geographically in a way that they are designed to be the most incendiary possible.
And in the context of a political campaign, if they can target these particular messages or ads at people that will push them to support one candidate over the other, all the better.
Finally Mr. Schiff, are you confident that these technology platforms, these companies are doing everything they can to make sure that this doesn't happen again, that is, to sort of target addresses from where this stuff is coming from, to create black lists, to kind of isolate how this happened, and make sure that their platforms aren't abused this way?
I think both of these platforms are really going to have to scale up their response to this and devote a lot more of their resources and investigative effort to ferreting these out, not only as a diagnostic in terms of what happened in the past, but also to protect their users and the public in the future.
So, at this point, I think it's still very much a work in progress. And both of these companies are going to have to devote a lot more resources to the problem.
All right, Representative Adam Schiff from California, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, thanks so much.
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