‘Your power scares me’ senator tells Facebook during first hearing on 2016 election
The two biggest moments of Tuesday’s hearing about Russian propaganda on social media put Facebook in the crosshairs.
“You put billions of data points together all the time. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad?” asked Sen. Al Franken of Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch during one of the hearing’s most heated exchanges on Tuesday.
The hearing also featured the general counsels of Google and Twitter, but they were mostly a sideshow to the haymakers thrown at Facebook. The social network was on the receiving end of the most pointed questions and the most heated exchanges.
Two moments stood out. The first came from Sen. John Kennedy, who pressed Stretch in the first hour of the hearing on Facebook’s ability to determine the identities of the people and companies that bought ads on its platform, as well as the company’s ability to track people and use that data to target ads and content.
“You got 5 million advertisers, and you’re going to tell me you’re able to trace the origin of all those?” Sen. John Kennedy had asked earlier.
Tuesday’s hearing is the first of three to be held this week and starred senators in the Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee. They questioned the general counsels a.k.a. the top lawyers of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. All of those companies are battling impending regulation of their advertising businesses in wake of the revelation that Russia-linked accounts purchased ads during the 2016 election.
Facebook profited from Russian bought ads during the 2016 election. So did Twitter and Google. But viewers of the hearing may have forgotten about the latter two. Facebook, far more than its peers, was the brunt of lawmakers’ questioning of the three representatives on Tuesday:
“Your power scares me,” Sen. Kennedy said as he started his questioning the general counsel representatives, where the majority of his questions were directed to Stretch. He listed several foreign nations and asked one by one if Stretch knew if his platform took money from them during previous elections.
It’s not surprising Facebook took the heat. On Monday night, the social network admitted that Russian propaganda reached 126 million Americans. Facebook had the most pieces of content purchased by Russia-linked accounts, according to the data provided to senators from the tech companies. Facebook had 80,000 posts from 470 accounts while Twitter uncovered 2,752 accounts and Google found only two accounts and 1,108 YouTube videos.
Facebook’s acceptance of Russian rubles for political ads fueled the second-most heated exchange, with Franken pushing Facebook to explain how that didn’t tip them off to Russia’s efforts.
Also at the hearing, Sen. Christopher Coons made public one of the Facebook ads bought by Russian accounts. The ad, reportedly paid for in rubles, called for the army to be taken away from Hillary Clinton if she were to win the presidency. The senator also revealed a Facebook event started by a Russia-linked account for a “Miners for Trump” event in Pennsylvania.
The hearings are of particular importance due to impending legislation that could put Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other tech companies under tighter regulation over political ads.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who co-sponsored the bill called the “Honest Ads Act,” asked Facebook’s Stretch, “Will you support our bill?”
“Our commitment,” he began to reply until Sen. Klobuchar cut him off.
“That’s not what I asked,” she said.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google have each publicly shared changes they will make to be more transparent on political ads and prevent foreign interference in the future elections. Yet, lawmakers like Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. Kennedy are not confident in the companies’ abilities to regulate themselves.
Google stayed quite mum during the majority of the hearing. As the third seat on the table, Google’s General Counsel Richard Salgado was able to reply to many of the lawmakers’ questions with “I agree.” Same with Twitter’s Sean Edgett.
In his prepared testimony, Google’s general counsel emphasized that the company’s lack of ad targeting actually makes it less valuable to propagandists compared to Facebook and Twitter.
“Google’s products also don’t lend themselves to the kind of targeting or viral dissemination tools that these actors seem to prefer,” he said.
Lawmakers were seemingly less interested in what he had to add. Even one question directed at Google seemed like a softball:
Kennedy: “Are you a media company or a technology platform?”
Google: “We’re a technology platform.”
K: “That’s what i thought you’d say.”
— ಠ_ಠ (@MikeIsaac) October 31, 2017
But lawmakers will have another chance to grill whoever they choose. On Wednesday, the general counsel will meet with the Select Intelligence Committees of the Senate and the House.