Top lawyers for Google, Facebook and Twitter admitted to senators Wednesday that efforts to combat Russian activity on their platforms during the election were insufficient and said that they still don’t have a full picture of the Russian online influence effort.
In one of two hearings on Russia’s campaign scheduled for Wednesday, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee went after the social media companies and highlighted the implications of the online meddling.
“I don’t think you get it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said. “What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare.”
Facebook revealed earlier this week that Russian-linked content may have reached as many as 126 million American users on the platform during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
Facebook’s top lawyer said Wednesday that figure is closer to 150 million people when Russian content on Facebook-owned Instagram is included.
Twitter said it uncovered 2,752 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm.” Google identified two accounts linked to the IRA that spent $4,700 on ads on Google platforms, and 18 YouTube channels connected to the Russian effort.
“We could’ve done more and we should’ve done more,” Google senior vice president and general counsel Kent Walker said Wednesday.
“Many of us on this committee have been raising this issue since the beginning of this year — our claims were blown off by the leadership of your companies,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the committee.
Under pressure from Warner, the witnesses also admitted that Facebook, Twitter and Google do not yet have a full accounting of Russian activities on their platforms.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told the witnesses the CEOs of their respective companies should have testified on Capitol Hill today.
The company representatives highlighted steps the platforms have taken to address concerns about content on their sites. Facebook, for example, is adding 10,000 employees to its security team by next year, effectively doubling the size of its team.
Republicans repeatedly pointed out that the Russian effort was focused on more than the 2016 election.
“This isn’t about re-litigating the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This isn’t about who won and who lost. This is about national security,” said Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C.
Burr also pushed back on reports that the Russian activities targeted swing states ahead of the election — revealing that five times as many Facebook ads targeted reliably-Democratic Maryland as Wisconsin, a key battleground state President Donald Trump narrowly won.
“This is a lot deeper than just the elections,” said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho. “There are a lot of things that the Russians are trying to do.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was concerned that some Russian efforts were “gathering liberals and discouraging them from voting.”
He echoed comments from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with the tech companies. He showed an example of the Russian campaign on Twitter — an ad featuring comedian Aziz Ansari — that encouraged users to vote via text, instead of in person.
Senators also pointed out that the Russian effort was sophisticated and went beyond fake ads.
Burr identified fake groups created in Texas — one supporting Texas secession and another called “United Muslims of America” — that created conflicting events at an Islamic center in Houston, with the goal of bringing conflicting groups together to foment unrest.
“What neither side could have known was that Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets,” Burr said.
Democrats also pushed back on Trump’s dismissive comments about Russian interference efforts and called for more leadership on the issue from the White House.
“We have a president who remains unwilling to acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy,” Warner said.