Facebook, Google, Twitter execs to testify at Russia hearings

The role that social media platforms played in the 2016 US presidential election is being looked into as part of a broader investigation into president Donald Trump's alleged collusion with Russia.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been asked to testify to the United States Congress as lawmakers continue to investigate Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, committee sources have said on Wednesday.

The Senate intelligence committee asked that the executives testify at a public hearing on November 1, 2017.

"In the coming month, we will hold an open hearing with representatives from tech companies in order to better understand how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election," the committee's Democrat representative Adam Schiff and Republican representative Mike Conaway said.

While the representatives did not specify which technology companies would be testifying, Facebook and Google confirmed they had received invitations from the Senate committee.

Some US lawmakers -- increasingly alarmed by the evidence suggesting Russian hackers used the internet to spread fake news and otherwise influence the 2016 election in favour of US commander-in-chief Donald Trump -- have been pushing for more information about the influence of social media platforms.

Early Wednesday, Trump posted a tweet accusing Facebook of always being "anti-Trump", adding that television networks and publications such as The New York Times and the Washington Post, have also been anti-Trump.

"But the people were Pro-Trump! Virtually no President has accomplished what we have accomplished in the first 9 months-and economy roaring," he added.

Facebook founder and frontman Mark Zuckerberg subsequently responded to Trump's tweets in the form of a Facebook post, saying both Trump and liberals are accusing the social media giant of influencing election results.

"Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don't like. That's what running a platform for all ideas looks like," Zuckerberg said in the post.

He went on to explain Facebook's influence in the 2016 presidential election, saying that "more people had a voice in this election than ever before", with "billions of interactions" about a variety of issues that "may have never happened offline". Some of these issues were not reported in the media, Zuckerberg added.

"[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," he said in his post.

The CEO also said it was the "first" US election where the internet was the primary medium of communication between candidates and the electorate.

"Every candidate had a Facebook page to communicate directly with tens of millions of followers every day," he said, adding that campaigns spent "hundreds of millions" advertising online, which is "1000x more than any problematic ads we've found."

Facebook revealed earlier this month that suspected Russian trolls purchased more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on its platform between June 2015 to May 2017, a revelation that triggered calls for new disclosure rules for online political ads.

Facebook said the purchases came from around 500 "inauthentic" accounts and pages that seemed to be affiliated with each other. The social media giant shut down the active accounts and pages -- which it said appeared to have been operating from Russia -- for violating its policies.

Facebook last week said it will turn over to the US Congress Russian-linked ads that may have been intended to sway the 2016 US election.

"We support Congress in deciding how to best use this information to inform the public, and we expect the government to publish its findings when their investigation is complete," Zuckerberg said at the time.

In his recent post, Zuckerberg additionally recalled Facebook's efforts in encouraging people to vote.

"[Our efforts] helped as many as 2 million people register to vote. To put that in perspective, that's bigger than the get out the vote efforts of the Trump and Clinton campaigns put together," he said. "That's a big deal."

Zuckerberg said Facebook will do its part to "defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections".

"We'll keep working to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, and to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and force for good in democracy," he added.

The Daily Beast, citing anonymous sources, also reported that a Facebook group called the "United Muslims of America" was a fake account linked to the Russian government. The group was reportedly making false claims about politicians, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Senate and House intelligence committees are the main congressional panels investigating allegations that Russia interfered in the latest US presidential election, as well as possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

The general consensus of law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the conclusion of the Central Intelligence Agency's own investigations suggest Russia was involved in election scheming, something that Trump and Russian officials have continued to dismiss, with the latter describing the allegations as "amusing rubbish".

Russian president Vladimir Putin had also insisted that Russia as a country never engaged in hacking activities, but conceded that some "patriotic" individuals may have, likening a hacker's free will to that of an artist, in a speech delivered to news agencies in June.

At the time, Putin lamented what he described as "Russo-phobic hysteria" in the US, saying such rhetoric makes it "somewhat inconvenient to work with one another or even to talk", adding that "someday this will have to stop".

He also alleged that some evidence pointing at Russian hackers' participation in cyber attacks -- although he did not specify which -- could have been falsified in an attempt to smear Russia.

"I can imagine that some do it deliberately, staging a chain of attacks in such a way as to cast Russia as the origin of such an attack," Putin said in June.

"Modern technologies allow that to be done quite easily."

Earlier this week, Russia's communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said it will block access to Facebook next year if the social media giant does not comply with a law requiring websites to store personal data of Russian citizens on Russian servers.

With AAP

Editorial standards