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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Friday, December 15, 2017

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Facebook, Google, Twitter discuss their role in Russia case

American elections will be protected from foreign powers

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CALIFORNIA, U.S. - For the lawmakers, who were seeking to find stronger evidence that American elections will be protected from foreign powers were left frustrated as they heard from executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Executives from the tech giants, for the first time publicly acknowledged their role in Russia’s influence on the presidential campaign of 2016 - but failed to offer many promises of doing a better job the next time around. 

Tuesday’s hearing was the first of three in two days for company executives and served as an initial public reckoning for the internet giants. 

Through the hearing, tech companies were forced to confront how they were used as tools for a broad Russian misinformation campaign, even though they have separately revealed their role as public squares for political discourse.

Members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, that included Democrats and Republicans complained that the companies had waited nearly a year to publicly admit how many Americans were exposed to the Russian effort to spread propaganda during the 2016 campaign. 

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, the chairman of the crime and terrorism subcommittee that held the hearing, said the risk went beyond Russia to other American adversaries. 

He alluded to potential regulation of political advertising online and said, “It’s Russia today; it could be Iran and North Korea tomorrow. We need to do is sit down and find ways to bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.”

Meanwhile, Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware asked, “Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsible legislative way to address it?”

Through the public hearings, Senators were pushing for harsher remedies, including regulations on their advertising practices akin to rules for political advertising on television.

On Monday, before the hearings, Facebook admitted that over 126 million users potentially saw inflammatory political ads purchased by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency.

Despite the revelation, on Tuesday, the most pointed exchanges in the hearing were aimed at Facebook.

Lawmakers have been particularly frustrated with Facebook as it earlier brushed off fake news and foreign interference on its site and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, dismissed it as a “crazy idea” just after the election.

The company has since then scrambled to appease lawmakers by promising to hire more than 1,000 people to manually review political ad purchases and to make the funding of those ads public.

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, told senators, “The foreign interference we saw was reprehensible.”

Apart from acknowledging it for the first time publicly, the companies also noted that they were struggling to keep up with the threat of foreign interference.

Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, said at the hearing, “The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us — and one that we are determined to meet.”

Reports pointed out that the enormous advertising business that is automated comes from the companies’ business models that rewards viral content, which can include misinformation. 

This makes it unable to easily spot ads purchased by foreign governments.

So far, Republicans, who have been more restrained in their criticism of the companies, were more skeptical on Tuesday. 

In a fiery exchange on whether Facebook could possibly police all of its advertisers, with Facebook’s general counsel, Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana said, “I’m trying to get us down from La-La Land here. The truth of the matter is, you have five million advertisers that change every month. Every minute. Probably every second. You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is, do you?”

Stretch acknowledged that Facebook could not track all of those advertisers.

Google meanwhile said that agents who were also from the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency uploaded more than 1,000 videos on its YouTube platform. 

And Twitter said the Russian agency published more 131,000 messages on Twitter.

Some Republicans, however, also sought to play down the Russian effort to tip the election in favor of President Trump during the hearing.

Instead, they stressed that the Kremlin’s agents did not favor a particular presidential candidate in last year’s election.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee said, “Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States. Their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy.”

However, the line of thought was at odds with the conclusion drawn up by American intelligence agencies that said that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to swing the election in Trump’s favour, going beyond just posting disruptive content on social media.

While neither Facebook, Twitter and Google have publicly opposed a bipartisan proposal to require reports on who funds political ads online, similar to rules for broadcast television - their lobbyists have privately resisted many aspects of the bill.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who introduced the bill with Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona said that the legislation was essential before the midterm elections in 2018.

Klobuchar said in an interview after the hearing, “Our midterms are 370 days away, and we don’t have time to mess around with dialogue anymore.”

The companies have this week admitted that the abuse of their platforms was much greater than previously acknowledged. 

On Wednesday, the top lawyers for all three companies will appear before the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting their own investigations into the Russian election meddling.

 

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