I have covered several Congressional hearings on Capitol Hill for the Montgomery County Sentinel. That is what I do. However the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on social media influence in the 2016 U.S. election held on November 1st was like no other.
The usual Congressional hearings I have attended are like the hearing during which former CIA Director John Brennan testified before the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Russian influence in our 2016 presidential election. During that hearing it was difficult to tell if the Republican members and the Democrat members were there for the same purpose. While the Democrat questions dealt with Russian interaction with the Trump campaign, the Republican questions dealt primarily with Hillary Clinton's emails.
No such variation in questioning during the social media hearing on November 1st. During this hearing, to my surprise, both Republicans and Democrats were for the most part on the same page. Quite simply, their questions focused on the extent of the Russian use of social media to attempt to influence the outcome of the election, what is being done to prevent any recurrence of that improper use of social media AND why was nothing done earlier!
Testifying on behalf of Facebook was General Counsel Colin Stretch, for Google was Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker, and for Twitter was Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine expressed the position of Democrats and Republicans alike when he questioned why the CEOs of these social media giants (like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook) weren't at this hearing to answer these questions, why those who are in position to set policy for these companies weren't there to testify.
One issue that initially seemed to cause Republicans and Democrats to be at odds was the issue of releasing the false Russian advertisements for public view as a means of helping voters better discern phony ads from legitimate ads. By day’s end, this dispute was apparently worked out as phony ads were made available for public review.
These phony Russian advertisements targeted a wide range of voters. There were ads such as the one with an image of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan with a caption indicating that Satan was backing Hillary Clinton. There was an advertisement with the words “South United” in the center of the Confederate flag and the caption reading “Heritage, not hate. The South will rise again...” Then there was the ad showing a sign posted at the southern border of the United States with the words “No Invaders Allowed” written on it. And, there is the phony ad entitled “Being Patriotic” in which a photo of Hillary Clinton is crossed out and the caption reads “Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama's anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda.”
Remember, regardless of your politics, these advertisements were prepared by Russia via its Internet Research Agency and designed to influence you. I can go on with more examples, even an anti-Trump ad, but the point is that these ads had one goal in mind and that was to disrupt our election and plant the seeds of division in our democratic society.
According to data provided by Facebook, 120 Russian-backed pages resulted in more than 80,000 unpaid posts which reached an estimated 126 million Americans. Again, this was just from one Russian agency, the Internet Research Agency. Certainly the likelihood is that this wasn't the lone culprit.
According to the Senate committee's vice chairman, Senator Mark Warner, “Russia's playbook is simple, but formidable and works like this: First, Russian disinformation agents set up thousands of fake accounts, groups and pages across a wide array of platforms. Then, these fake accounts populate content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, and others. Next, each of these fake accounts spend months developing networks of real people to follow and like their content, boosted by tools like paid ads and automated bots. Most of their real-life followers have no idea they are caught up in this web. Lastly, these networks are later utilized to push an array of disinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda (like RT and Sputnik), fake news, and divisive content. The goal here is to get this content into the news feeds of as many potential receptive Americans as possible and to covertly and subtly push them in the direction the Kremlin wants them to go.”
As someone who grew up during the height of the Cold War, I find it disheartening that our arch enemy finally found a road to victory. Social media companies must be compelled to realize that they are news outlets of massive proportions and must take on the responsibility to ensure transparency to the greatest extent and, in so doing, ensure readers understand the origin of the posts they read. These “bi-partisan” hearings, it is hoped, will expedite the institution of these controls by these companies.