Silicon Valley is about to get its feet held to the fire in Washington.
With members of both parties in Congress furious over Russia’s use of social media to stick its nose in last year’s presidential campaign, representatives from Twitter, Google and Facebook are in for some big-time grilling over what they knew about the Russian funny business and when they knew it.
Here’s some things to know before the show gets underway, starting with today’s session and followed by two more panel appearances on Wednesday:
What’s going on?
Congress wants to know more about how three of the top tech companies in the United States were used by Russian meddlers trying to sway the presidential election, so they’re bringing in their reps to answer some questions.
Who’s doing the asking?
Today’s hearing is before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is helmed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and includes California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Who’s doing the answering?
Facebook is sending its top legal hired gun, Colin Stretch, to field questions. Rich Salgado, Google’s point person for law enforcement and security, will be at the table. And Twitter will be represented by Sean Edgett, the acting general counsel for the powerful social-media platform.
What time will the hearing start?
Today’s hearing starts at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time. There will be two more hearings tomorrow, one before the House Intelligence Committee and other before the Senate’s sister panel.
Where is the hearing being held?
After a last-minute location change, today’s Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing entitled: “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working with Tech to Find Solutions,” will take place in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building.
Who else will appear?
The committee will also hear from Clint Watts, the Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and Michael Smith, a terrorism analyst from Charleston, SC.
Where can I watch it live-streamed?
You can watch it here at the Committee on the Judiciary’s website.
Is the hearing open to the public?
Yes, with limited seating.
What might we expect to hear from the tech companies?
The Washington Post reported, based on draft testimony, that Facebook will tell lawmakers that 126 million of its users may have seen content created and circulated by Russian agents, a number many times more than what the company had previously disclosed. Facebook originally said Russia’s efforts to influence the election involved 470 accounts and pages that spent more than $100,000 on 3,000 ads that reached 10 million users. But outside researchers have said for weeks that free posts almost certainly reached much larger audiences — and Facebooks new estimate essentially concedes that point.
On its website, Google this week said for the first time that it had found “some evidence of efforts to misuse our platforms during the 2016 U.S. election by actors linked to the Internet Research Agency in Russia. Preventing the misuse of our platforms is something that we take very seriously; it’s a major focus for our teams. We’re committed to finding a way to stop this type of abuse, and to working closely with governments, law enforcement, other companies, and leading NGOs to promote electoral integrity and user security, and combat misinformation.”
The blog post by Kent Walker, Senior Vice President, and Salgado said that the problems have been going on for years and “we’ve seen many types of efforts to abuse Google’s services.”
“We have been conducting a thorough investigation related to the U.S. election across our products drawing on the work of our information security team, research into misinformation campaigns from our teams, and leads provided by other companies,” they wrote. “Today, we are sharing results from that investigation. While we have found only limited activity on our services, we will continue to work to prevent all of it, because there is no amount of interference that is acceptable.”
Twitter is also upping its estimates of Russian infiltration, the Post reported, planning to tell congressional investigators that it has identified 2,752 accounts controlled by Russian operatives and more than 36,000 bots that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election.
What’s at stake here for the tech giants?
As David McCabe wrote on Axios, this week’s hearings present “the chance for Google, Twitter and Facebook to convince lawmakers they’re doing the right thing — reporting the findings of their internal investigations and taking steps to prevent a repeat. While they aren’t expected to formally endorse a specific proposal, the companies’ general counsels will emphasize their willingness to play ball in working out a disclosure solution for paid political ads online.”
What’s the inside scoop on the hearings?
“Top brass in Silicon Valley will be watching the hearings closely,” McCabe points out. He said we can expect to see the three companies, through their DC trade group, start to roll out new “principles” for regulating online ads “right before getting grilled by the sponsors of the Honest Ads Act that would put new disclosure requirements on online platforms.”
That legislation was proposed recently by Democratic Sen. Mark Warner as a way to regulate online political advertising the same way as television, radio and print. Warner, who’s the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is one of three senators calling for passage of the bill, joined by Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John McCain, R.-Ariz.
“This is an issue of national security,” Klobuchar said. “Russia attacked us and will continue to use different tactics to undermine our democracy and divide our country, including by purchasing disruptive online political ads.”
News reports suggest Klobuchar and Warner will push the witnesses on their Honest Ads bill, with Klobuchar expected to go especially hard on the companies’ reps if they resist efforts to support such a law.
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