Ordinarily, Twitter’s announcement that some of its users can now send tweets twice as long as its signature 140-character limit, and that this freedom could be broadened to others, would have been the company’s top news of the week. But instead, Twitter, like Facebook before it, is under the national microscope as government investigations of alleged Russian manipulation of U.S. elections heat up.
Members of Congress have been pressuring social media companies to ferret out any Russian-linked entities that may have been using their services to spread fake news or otherwise influence voter opinion, and share their findings with the government. Facebook, which has been under the public spotlight this month, recently revealed to Congressional committees investigating the election interference that hundreds of accounts traced to Russian actors had bought 3,000 U.S.-targeted ads that seemed designed to rile up emotions over divisive topics such as race relations, gun control, immigration, and LGBT issues.
Twitter scanned for about 450 of the suspicious accounts Facebook had flagged, and found that 22 of those entities also had Twitter accounts, which have all been suspended, the company reported in a blog post and shared with investigators during closed congressional briefings on Thursday. Twitter also followed traces from those 22 accounts to identify 179 related ones, and suspended service for those that also violated company rules. (Meanwhile, outside researchers, including cybersecurity company FireEye, have identified a much higher number of suspicious Twitter accounts related to alleged Russian election meddling, the New York Times reported.)
On top of those Russia-related accounts recently discovered, Twitter also shared with congressional committee staffers a collection of ads placed in 2016 by three accounts opened by RT, formerly known as Russia Today, an organization linked to the Russian government. In a January report on suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies flagged RT as a key mechanism in that influence campaign. Twitter found that RT spent $274,100 on U.S. ads in 2016.
Political leaders’ reactions to Twitter’s efforts were mixed. The Times reported that Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the social media company’s response to the issue “inadequate,” while Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called it “good, but preliminary.”
The Senate and House intelligence committees are not only bent on understanding the impact of alleged Russian hacking and social media manipulation on the 2016 elections—they’re also trying to figure out what should be done to prevent the same things from happening in future elections.
But the meddling may never have stopped.
According to a Washington, DC, policy group’s research, hundreds of Russian-linked Twitter accounts are promoting political polarization in the U.S. to this day, the Times reported.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy, an initiative under The German Marshall Fund of the United States, tracked 600 Russia-linked Twitter accounts as they used tweets to amplify the recent uproar over President Donald Trump’s conflict with NFL players protesting alleged racial bias and brutality among U.S. police forces, the Times reported. Those suspicious accounts apparently split their Twitter messages—some backing the NFL players who knelt rather than stand as the national anthem played at the opening of football games, and others supporting Trump for denouncing the players.
Facebook and Twitter, as well as Google, have all reportedly been invited to testify at an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Nov. 1, and the House Intelligence Committee may also ask the trio in for an earlier session in October. Google is of interest to investigators because it sells ads, offers content on YouTube, and operates a search engine. One concern is that foreign hackers might have found ways to influence search results on Google.
The government has had testy relationships with tech giants before—often over law enforcement issues, such as investigators’ access to data on users suspected of crimes. But the 2016 election has focused intense attention on the inner workings of tech company services—how they classify their users and advertisers, and how they monitor and curate their content. Now lawmakers are mulling how these companies could or should do more to protect democratic processes. One proposal is for legislation that would require buyers of campaign ads on social media sites to disclose who paid for them, just as they must do for broadcast election ads.
The impulse toward regulation seems to be growing as Congress and voters learn more about the ways that operatives of a foreign nation can apparently manipulate the American political conversation by disguising themselves as U.S. organizations or individuals who are expressing their views and debating with others. Voters now know that there may have been no real group or person at all behind a message, but instead, a network of automated bots churning out false propaganda messages for the advantage of a foreign U.S. adversary.
It may not be surprising, then, that discussion of the role of tech companies in the election often takes an accusatory tone—as though tech giants had agreed to be morally responsible for guaranteeing the fairness and integrity of U.S. political debate on their sites, or that they were legally obliged to do so.
Those expectations now pose an ongoing challenge for tech companies as they explain what steps they were already taking to eliminate bad actors; what more they’re willing to do in light of the election meddling findings; and possibly, what they won’t agree to do.
Both Facebook and Twitter had existing procedures to monitor traffic and eliminate content that, as they saw it, eroded the value of their services—such as banning spam or rooting out bot networks.
In a public policy blog post on Thursday, Twitter said its work in 2016 extended to election measures, such as countering false messages claiming that citizens could vote via text message.
“We are concerned about violations of our Terms of Service and U.S. law with respect to interference in the exercise of voting rights. When we become aware of such activity we take appropriate and timely action. During the 2016 election, we removed Tweets that were attempting to suppress or otherwise interfere with the exercise of voting rights, including the right to have a vote counted, by circulating intentionally misleading information.”
Twitter also agreed to do more:
“We note recent calls for increased public disclosure with respect to political advertisements on social media, including Twitter. Twitter supports making political advertising more transparent to our users and the public. Internally, we already have stricter policies for advertising campaigns on Twitter than we do for organic content. We also have existing specific policies and review mechanisms for campaign ads, but will examine them with an eye to improving them. We welcome the opportunity to work with the FEC [Federal Election Commission] and leaders in Congress to review and strengthen guidelines for political advertising on social media.”
On Wednesday, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized in a blog post for his earlier stance discounting the idea that manipulation of Facebook content could have affected the 2016 election results.
“After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive,” Zuckerberg said.
“But the data we have has always shown that our broader impact—from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote—played a far bigger role in this election. We will continue to work to build a community for all people. We will do our part to defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections.”
In an interesting twist, government officials are pressuring tech companies to do what the U.S. president himself won’t take on—to support efforts to root out the truth about alleged Russian hacking and election meddling, and stop it from happening again.
Trump recently revived his argument that claims of Russian election interference are a “hoax.” In addition, he used Twitter to try to instigate a verbal brawl with Facebook and news organizations on Wednesday, accusing them of “collusion” in an attempt to defeat his election bid, as Recode reported.
Zuckerberg replied: “I want to respond to President Trump’s tweet this morning claiming Facebook has always been against him. Every day I work to bring people together and build a community for everyone. We hope to give all people a voice and create a platform for all ideas.
“Trump says Facebook is against him. Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”