Social media firms grilled on Russia ads

If Facebook wants to be more influential and valuable, it has to be a platform that garners the trust of its users and advertisers. Photo: iSTOCK

Facebook, Google and Twitter – technology powerhouses actively cultivating their influence in Washington – received an unaccustomed grilling and even ridicule in their first appearance before Congress over Russian meddling in last year’s presidential campaign.

Two hearings on Wednesday may bring more of the same for top attorneys from the companies, who were forced to acknowledge to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday that they aren’t sure they’ve measured the full extent of foreign manipulation of their social networks and don’t yet have the technology to ensure it won’t happen again.

“We need to understand the behaviour and we need to have the capacity both as a company and as an industry to be able to track it and eradicate it,” said Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel. He said the company will double its safety and security staff to 20,000, including contract workers, by the end of 2018 to help track foreign interference and extremist postings.

The companies stopped short of endorsing proposed legislation that would require them to disclose all purchasers of political advertising, as old-line broadcasters have long been required to do. While some Republicans said such requirements would raise constitutional questions, Democrats on the panel said Congress must act.

The ridicule came from Democratic Senator Al Franken, who expressed amazement that Facebook had failed to detect Russians were behind American political ads on its platform even though some of them were paid for in rubles.

“People are buying ads on your platforms with rubles! They’re political ads,” the senator from Minnesota said. “You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go like, ‘Hmmm, those two data points spell out something bad?’”

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