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Social media giants are vulnerable to foreign propaganda. What can they do to change?

Social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google came to Congress on Tuesday to admit publicly that their platforms have a political dark side, and that Russia used them to try to manipulate how Americans voted. Nick Schifrin offers a recap of the hearing and Judy Woodruff takes a deeper look with Thomas Rid of Johns Hopkins University and Tim Wu of Columbia University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Capitol Hill, the first of two days of hearings exploring the role of social media in the 2016 election.

    Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google faced tough questions from a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the first time, social media giants came to Congress to admit publicly their platforms have a political dark side.

    Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch:

  • Colin Stretch:

    The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Acting Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett:

  • Sean Edgett:

    The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That foreign actor is Russia. And Facebook, Twitter and Google today admitted Russia used the American technology giants to try to manipulate how Americans voted.

  • Colin Stretch:

    That foreign actors, hiding behind fake accounts, abused our platform and other Internet services to try to sow division and discord, and to try to undermine the election, is directly contrary to our values, and goes against everything Facebook stands for.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Facebook, from June 2015 to August 2017, 120 fake accounts posted 80,000 times and reached as many as 126 million Americans with content designed to be divisive, like the group Secured Borders falsely accusing liberals of banning the word Christmas and of President Trump wearing a Santa Claus outfit, falsely claiming President Barack Obama wanted to pardon 750,000 undocumented immigrants, or the group Defend the Second, saying gun rights are important because it's easier to get out of jail than out of cemetery.

    Note the missing A, a sure giveaway of a Russian speaker.

    Facebook says the ads were purchased and spread by Russian trolls believed to work in this St. Petersburg building. Earlier this year, I met Marat Mindiyarov, who used to be one of those trolls.

  • Marat Mindiyarov:

    Suddenly, you see a lot of comments at night, and they're all the same, yes? And it's exactly the people doing their job. They have their topic, they have a time to do it, they write it, and you see it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He posted under the headline "Can the U.S. Take Russia Out?" on 50 Web sites in 23 cities, and fellow trolls Kiril Ivashkin, Gennady Orlov, Mike Brandon expressed the exact same thought, 600 posts from 70 fake accounts in 12 hours, just one battalion in a sock puppet army manufactured by a handful of trolls.

    As for Twitter, it said, from last September through November 15, fake Russian accounts posted 1.4 million election-related tweets, nearly half of them automated, like Blacktivist, who depicted African-Americans as divided and destroyed by white society.

  • Sean Edgett:

    If there is inflammatory content that some even would find to be upsetting, that's not the type of ad we want running on Twitter.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Google admitted that fake Russian accounts opened 18 fake channels on its YouTube service.

  • Richard Salgado:

    We understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Congress is debating laws that would require the regulation of political ads on social media, similar to TV and radio regulation. The technology companies are promising to disclose who's buying the ads and who they're targeting.

    But some senators weren't convinced the companies could to avoid a repeat of 2016.

  • Democrat Al Franken:

  • Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.:

    You can't put together rubles with a political ad and go, like, hmm, those two data points spell out something bad?

  • Colin Stretch:

    Senator, it's a signal we should have been alert to, and, in hindsight, it's one we missed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Republican John Kennedy.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    I'm trying to get us down from la-la land here. The truth of the matter is you have five million advertisers that change every month, every minute, probably every second. You don't have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?

  • Colin Stretch:

    Seeing essentially behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course, the answer is no.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The problem is enormous, but put into perspective, on Facebook and Twitter, Russian trolls produce about one-third of 1 percent of all content.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to look deeper into how social media companies are dealing with foreign propaganda by Russian-linked political accounts, I'm joined by Thomas Rid, professor or strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. And Timothy Wu, he's a professor at Columbia Law School in New York City. He served as an adviser on the White House National Economic Council in 2016.

    Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

    Thomas Wu, to you first.

    Do we now understand why it was so easy for the Russians and others to infect these social media platforms with what they wanted to say?

  • Thomas Rid:

    You mean me, Thomas Rid, first?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sorry. I misspoke.

    Timothy Wu, yes.

  • Tim Wu:

    Oh, sure. Sorry.

    I think we do. I think that what we learned from today's hearings is that the companies themselves are acknowledging that they do have a problem. They're open. They're big, automated machines. So, as I think Senator Kennedy put it, you know, they have five million advertisers.

    Anyone can advertise very precisely to what they want, and they can also create fake accounts to spread whatever news they want. These are extremely vulnerable systems for foreign propaganda.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Thomas Rid, these companies are now all acknowledging that their guard was down, that they didn't do enough to screen what was coming in?

  • Thomas Rid:

    They do, but it's really important to distinguish between these companies, because they're different, and the way they deal with this problem is also different.

    Facebook — the market drives Facebook to fix the problem and to be more transparent, and they have been more transparent, and they have tried to fix the problem.

    The opposite is true for Twitter. Twitter, the market drives Twitter to hide the problem, and indeed to enable the removal of evidence. Why? Because, basically, Twitter has a different naming policy. You can have anonymous accounts on Twitter. You can have multiple accounts on Twitter, no real name required.

    So the more accounts there are on Twitter, the better Twitter looks on the market, so they're hiding a lot of automated activity on their platform.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Timothy Wu, in other words, it's easier on some of these platforms than on others, namely, on Twitter than on Facebook, to get propaganda out?

  • Tim Wu:

    I'm not sure I entirely agree with that.

    I think that they both have similar incentives, in the sense that they are both based on advertising model. In fact, Facebook has more of an advertising market share. And so they both are driven by the demand to have news, to have things shared, you know, to increase their share of attention. And they're both extremely automated.

    So I think there's a lot of similarities, some differences, but a lot of similarities. They both structurally are vulnerable to foreign propaganda in a way that broadcasting or newspapers are not.

    And I think that's the main issue here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Thomas Rid, after today's testimony and just based on what these companies are now saying, should we this confident that they are putting in screens, filters now that weren't there before?

  • Thomas Rid:

    I think, again, I would be slightly more confident that Facebook is making the right moves. They have hired a large, excellent team.

    Let's be a little more concrete on the side of Twitter. The amount of automation, so-called bot accounts, on Twitter is an open question. How many bots are there on Twitter?

    The academic estimates range from 15 percent, based on studies, to 23 percent. Now, that could be as much as one-fifth of Twitter's user base being automated, being fake, ultimately.

    So, so far, Twitter has not been as forthcoming as they should be to remove bots from their platform.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Timothy Wu, how would you assess how many steps, how much these sites, all three of them, YouTube, and Twitter and Facebook, have done to improve security?

  • Tim Wu:

    Well, listen, I give them some credit for taking this problem seriously.

    A year ago, they were in denial. So they have chained that attitude, and I read through all their proposals. But, you know, they are to some level proposing Band-Aid solutions to what are structural problems. You know, the more structural solutions start to threaten their revenue streams.

    They have highly automated systems for advertising and for user identification, and they can hire — I think Facebook said it's hiring 4,000 people. That's a start.

    But the challenge fundamentally is it's hard when you have a determined entity, like a foreign state, to figure out who is a fake person, who is a shell corporation, you know, who is — when you want to have an advertising — advertising automated systems.

    These are extremely vulnerable to attack. So I think that structural change is different and it's very difficult to do if they want to have millions and millions of advertisers and billions of users.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Thomas Rid, given that, what more do they need to do right now, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube?

  • Thomas Rid:

    Social media embodies a fundamental contradiction at the heart of open liberal democracy.

    We all want privacy protections. But we also want to understand how our democracy comes to decisions. So, if you look at social media, what we find is that the bots, the disinformation operators, foreign spy agencies often have the same level of privacy, privacy protection as a 15-year-old tweeting from her sofa at home under their real name.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're saying nothing much can be done about that?

  • Thomas Rid:

    I say we have to start distinguishing between abuses between bots and between real people, and we have to do this in a more thorough way. And we shouldn't allow a foreign intelligence agency to edit the news, and really edit history in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Timothy Wu, is that realistic? Is that something that could be done before next year's election?


  • Tim Wu:

    Well, I join him on declaring that there should be war on bots.

    That's something that didn't get addressed enough in today's hearing and I feel very strongly about. We need something called a blade runner law, which forces entities to try to identify bots. Instead, the bots have to identify themselves as not human.

    This is a serious issue. And that, I completely agree on. There are — we don't know — as you said, we don't know how many tens of millions of these entities are actually not human, and they absolutely aid these foreign propaganda efforts.

    So, I think this is — it's a priority. I — as I said, I give them credit for starting. By the next election, I think they're going to have to do a lot more, and I think Congress has got to keep watching everybody, because the incentives are not that deep. The revenue model actually is helped by foreign propaganda.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, gentlemen, we're going to watch it, keep it there. But we will continue to watch it.

    Timothy Wu, Thomas Rid, gentlemen, thank you.

  • Tim Wu:

    Thank you.

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