Attorneys for Twitter, Facebook and Google on Tuesday told U.S. lawmakers that Russian entities used their platforms to sow discord and disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but downplayed the magnitude of those efforts.
“Foreign actors used fake accounts to place ads in Facebook and Instagram that reached millions of Americans over a two-year period,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said, testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. “Many of these ads and posts are inflammatory. Some are downright offensive.”
Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, said the company studied all tweets posted from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016, and found that election-related content posted by automated Russian troll accounts “was comparatively small.” He said the Russian troll accounts made up “around 1/100th of a percent of total Twitter accounts” during the time studied.
“Twitter believes that any activity of that kind — regardless of magnitude — is unacceptable and we agree we must do better to prevent it,” he said.
Twitter has taken action against the suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts and implementing new dedicated teams “to enhance the quality of the information our users see,” Edgett said.
Facebook, meanwhile, said it would hire more people to vet and, when necessary, remove content, and verify and publish the identities of election advertisers.
Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the Senate requiring some of the very steps technology giants say they are implementing on their own.
“These platforms are being used by people who wish us harm and wish to undercut our way of life,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Russia interfered in the election,” said California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. “What is really staggering and hard to fully comprehend is how easily and successfully they turned modern technologies to their advantage.”
The social media attorneys said Russian trolling campaigns consistently sought to rile up Americans, first in a way damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. After the election, they said, Russian efforts appeared aimed at sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Republican Donald Trump’s victory at the polls — a point seized upon by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
“Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States; their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy,” Grassley said.
Representatives from the same social media companies testify Wednesday before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
VOA’s Joshua Fatzick contributed to this report.