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U.S. Senate Committee Presses Tech Giants for Answers on Russia

A representative from Facebook testified that as many as 126 million users saw advertising content tied to the Russian political interference operations.

(TNS) -- Online anonymity and tech companies’ inability to discern real corporations from shell firms funded by Russian money prevented Facebook, Google and Twitter from identifying Russian interference in the 2016 election, company representatives said Tuesday during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Though it was a rare opportunity for lawmakers to grill tech firms on their practices and policies, senators seemed frustrated by the companies’ refusal to back regulation of political ads online and open up about their efforts to root out terrorism and foreign meddling.

“How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in rubles were coming from Russia?” asked Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Twitter’s Sean Edgett later became the sole tech company representative to commit to not accepting political ads that are paid for in a foreign currency.

Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, declined to go as far as making a promise under oath. Google’s representative, Richard Salgado, said he needed to “check to make sure it’s a good signal.”

As many as 126 million Facebook users may have been exposed to content that “originated from the Russian operation,” Stretch said.

That’s a big jump from the previous estimate of 11.4 million users that the social networking giant said probably saw paid advertisements by Russian operatives, in part because it includes propaganda posts that spread through shares and likes, without a boost from ads. Facebook had never before disclosed the impact such content had on its social network.

Twitter in its prepared remarks reported that it found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian-backed operations and more than 36,000 bots promoting similar propaganda. Those accounts, according to Edgett, the company’s acting general counsel, tweeted about last year’s election about 1.4 million times and generated 288 million “impressions,” a measure of how much a tweet is viewed.

Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said the company had found two main accounts on its advertising service that appeared to be backed by the Russian government. Those accounts spent roughly $4,700 on search and display ads during the U.S. presidential election, Salgado said.

On YouTube, Google’s video-sharing service, 18 channels with about 1,100 videos were uploaded by “individuals who we suspect are associated with this effort and that contained political content,” according to Salgado’s prepared remarks.

Each company’s representative was quick to point out how low those numbers were in the grand scheme of things: More than 1.3 billion people visit Facebook daily; Twitter sees about 330 million users monthly; and Google, which earns more than $75 billion a year in ad revenue, said people watch more than a billion hours of YouTube video daily, with 400 hours of video uploaded every minute.

But senators quickly grew irritated with attempts at minimizing the problem.

“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem?” asked Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

“I hear a lot of Johnny-come-latelies,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who implied the companies could have done more to investigate these advertisements and noted how much money they made from them.

Federal investigators have said they believe there are probably many more accounts on Twitter that went undiscovered because they were not linked to the accounts that had already been shut down. Facebook’s lawyer said it’s likely that they were not able to find every Russian-linked account, as the company is limited in its ability to “see behind” the company running an advertising account. If a firm is a shell corporation ultimately backed by Russian money, Stretch said, it would be difficult for Facebook to tell.

Facebook announced that it would double its security and safety staff, which tracks extremism and other forms of abuse on its network, to 20,000 by the end of next year. Twitter said it has hundreds of workers tackling the issue, and Google said there are thousands of its employees dedicated to tracking misuse of its services.

Though the hearing was focused on Russian use of social media to disseminate false or divisive political narratives, senators brought up a wide range of issues, including fake news, shell corporations, free speech, the power of Silicon Valley, tech employees’ own political leanings and whether tech firms should be considered media companies.

“The prospect of Silicon Valley companies actively censoring speech or the news content is troubling to anyone who cared about a democratic process with a robust First Amendment,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “It is disconcerting if those political positions (of tech employees) become a lens through which American consumers consume news.”

Company lawyers will testify again before the Senate and House intelligence committees on Wednesday, widely considered the main event in this week’s congressional probe of tech companies.

None of the companies’ high-profile CEOs — Google’s Sundar Pichai, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — attended Tuesday’s hearing.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.