If Facebook, Twitter, and Google thought the Russia investigation would blow over, they are sadly mistaken
“We are not going to go away, gentleman. And this is a very big deal,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein during the hearing with Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. “You have a huge problem on your hands. And the US is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention …. you have to be the ones who do something about it, or we will.”
Feinstein was referencing the platforms’ roles in the 2016 election and how Russia promoted politically divisive content. Facebook revealed last month that 126 million Americans may have seen Russia-linked content. That number was revised on Wednesday to 146 million by counting posts on Instagram.
This release was after Facebook shared in September 10 million Americans saw Facebook ads. Google and Twitter also came forward with their own numbers.
So far, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have operated without regulation from the U.S. government on the advertising businesses that generate the majority of their revenues. These lawmakers could soon limit that freedom.
As Sen. Feinstein put it, she’s had enough.
“I don’t think you get it. I think the fact that you’re general counsel, you defend your companies. What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the beginning of a cyber warfare,” Sen. Feinstein said.
For years, the Democratic senator of California has talked about the need for the government to better work with the tech industry and has called for new laws. But little has gotten through. Sen. Feinstein was also present in a hearing with the Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee on Tuesday.
“I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked questions and got vague answers,” Sen. Feinstein said.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google have each introduced new tools and guidelines to better control political advertising, but the senators said they have been disappointed with their work so far.
Sen. Angus King said that he was “disappointed” the CEOs did not appear at the hearing and instead the companies sent their general counsels.
That included frustration from previous conversations with the companies and an apparent lack of proactive engagement, according to the senators.
“Does it trouble you that it took this committee to get you to look at the authentic nature of the users and of the content?” asked Sen. Richard Burr.
“We are certainly troubled. I’d say more than troubled,” said Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch. “We’re certainly grateful for the committees attention. … We do believe there are opportunities for us to do better.”
One way some senators of the committee want the companies to do better is by sharing the Russia-linked Facebook ads with the public. Facebook has chosen not to do so. The senators used some as pieces of evidence during the hearing:
Other senators want Facebook and the platform to simply admit their wrongdoings. Sen. Kamala Harris asked how much each of the platforms made off the Russian-linked ads. None were able to answer at the time.
One of the most heated exchanges came between Sen. Mark Warner and Facebook’s Stretch about the company’s lack of action.
Sen. Warner asked if Facebook reviewed the Russia-linked accounts they took down during the French election to see if they played a role in the U.S. election.
“Just please answer my question,” Sen. Warner said later.
“Senator, I apologize. I’m trying to answer the question,” Stretch asked.
“Answer is yes or no,” Sen. Warner interrupted.
“Sir, we’ll have to get back to you on that,” Stretch replied.
“We’ve had this hearing scheduled for months,” Sen. Warner said.
Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos later tweeted during the hearing to share more information. That was after Stretch said he would have to get back to the committee.
Sen. Warner expressed his frustration with the companies.
“Our claims were frankly blown off by the leadership of your companies,” Sen Warner said. “Candidly your first presentations showed a lack of effort. … Candidly, your companies know more about Americans than the United States government does.”
But these companies are not required to issue corrections of wrongdoing. Sen. Warner noted that while hospitals share in the blame when disease spreads and individual TV networks will issue corrections to their previous reporting, the tech platforms tend not to proactively share anything when misinformation spreads via their networks.
The hearing was adjourned after three hours. Going forward, Sen. Burr asked them to continue the conversations not only with the government but among themselves.
“If you need anti-trust waivers to collaborate with each other, let us know,” Sen. Burr said.
The representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google will meet with lawmakers of the House Select Intelligence Committee later on Wednesday.