Tech giants face gruelling hearings in Congress on Russian influence

US senators said on Tuesday they wanted to work with Silicon Valley to find answers on how Russia allegedly manipulated social media networks to try to influence the 2016 US campaign.
Facebook, the world's largest social network, added fuel to the debate on Monday when it told Congress in written testimony that 126 million Americans may have seen politically divisive posts that originated in Russia under fake names.
Facebook, the world's largest social network, added fuel to the debate on Monday when it told Congress in written testimony that 126 million Americans may have seen politically divisive posts that originated in Russia under fake names. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc's Google will appear before US lawmakers for two days of gruelling hearings on how Russia allegedly used their services to try to sway the 2016 US election.

At stake for the Silicon Valley companies are their public images and the threat of tougher advertising regulations in the United States, where the technology sector has grown accustomed to light treatment from the government.

Facebook, the world's largest social network, added fuel to the debate on Monday when it told Congress in written testimony that 126 million Americans may have seen politically divisive posts that originated in Russia under fake names.

That is in addition to 3,000 US political ads that Facebook said Russians bought on its platform. Google and Twitter have also said people in Russia used their services to spread messages in the run-up to last year's US presidential election.

The Russian government has denied that it intended to influence the election, in which President Donald Trump, a Republican, defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times, citing copies of prepared remarks from the companies to Congress, said Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google's YouTube service.

The new information goes far beyond what the firms have revealed in the past and underlines the breadth of the Kremlin's efforts to lever open divisions in the US using American technology platforms, especially Facebook. Multiple investigations of Russian meddling have loomed over the first 10 months of Mr Trump's presidency.

In its prepared remarks sent to Congress, Facebook said the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin, had posted roughly 80,000 pieces of divisive content that was shown to about 29 million people between January 2015 and August this year. Those posts were then liked, shared and followed by others, spreading the messages to tens of millions more people.

The Russia-linked posts were "an insidious attempt to drive people apart", Mr Colin Stretch, the general counsel for Facebook who will appear at the hearings this week, said in his prepared remarks. He called the posts "deeply disturbing", and noted that they focused on race, religion, gun rights, and gay and transgender issues.

Twitter, in its prepared remarks, said it had discovered more than 2,700 accounts on its service that were linked to the Internet Research Agency between September and November last year. Twitter also identified more than 36,000 automated accounts that posted 1.4 million election-related tweets linked to Russia over that three-month period. The tweets received about 288 million views, according to the company's remarks.

Google, in its prepared statement, said it had also found evidence that the Internet Research Agency bought ads on its services and created YouTube channels to upload short videos about divisive social issues, including law enforcement, race relations or Syria.

The US Senate's crime subcommittee will be the first of three committees to hold hearings on Russia. Its hearing is set for 2.30am today Singapore time.

REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2017, with the headline 'Tech giants face gruelling hearings in Congress on Russian influence'. Print Edition | Subscribe