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U.S. Senators Lambaste Facebook Over Russian Ads Aired On Network


WASHINGTON -- U.S. senators have lashed out at Facebook and other leading social-media companies for failing to prevent alleged abuses of their networks by Russian operatives during last year's presidential campaign.

"Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem?" Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on October 31.

Coons was referring to Facebook's disclosure before the hearing that nearly half of U.S. voters may have viewed politically divisive Russian-sponsored ads and posts on its network in the months surrounding the election.

"They’re using our own social networks, our friendships, families, and biases and viewpoints against us," Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said.

Democratic Senator Al Franken demanded to know why Facebook didn't figure out until recently that an advertisement paid for in Russian rubles had been purchased by alleged Russian operatives.

"How could you not connect those two dots?" Franken asked.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch conceded that, in retrospect, the company should have seen the abuses and done more to prevent them.

"In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There are signals we missed," Stretch said. He called the Russian ads uncovered by the company "reprehensible" and "outrageous" because of their focus on spurring divisions among Americans on issues such as race and immigration.

Stretch said Facebook had been investigating the presence of Russian operatives on its network since January and had announced steps to disclose the identify of groups behind political ads in the future. It also is hiring 1,000 more people to review ads with an eye toward spotting abuses, he said.

'Internet Is Borderless'

U.S. law bars election advertising by non-Americans, but Republican Senator John Kennedy said he doubted Facebook will be able to stop people overseas from buying U.S. election ads despite its announced efforts.

"You've got 5 million advertisers [every month], and you're going to tell me that you're able to trace the origin of all those advertisements?" Kennedy asked Stretch.

"Of course, the answer is no," Stretch said. The lawyer added that in particular, there was little the company could do if a foreign advertiser used a U.S. shell corporation to start an account on the network.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked whether Iran and North Korea could try to do what Russia did during last year's election.

Stretch said: "Certainly potentially. The Internet is borderless."

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was the first of three being held this week on the use of social networks by Russian operatives during the election.

On November 1, representatives of the same three companies face hearings before the intelligence committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.

The committees hosting the hearings have played leading roles in investigating the conclusions that were reached by the U.S. intelligence community and released in a report in January. That report accused Moscow of orchestrating a hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at swaying last year’s election.

In the months since that report, investigations by media outlets and congressional investigators have turned up thousands of examples of Russian-linked "trolls" and automated "bots" being used to spread fake news.

Ahead of the congressional hearings, Facebook disclosed that it had found 80,000 posts published by Russia-based operatives that were aimed at swaying U.S. voters. The company also said about 126 million Americans may have viewed those posts over a two-year period.

Twitter, meanwhile, said in written testimony released before the hearings that it had found far more accounts linked to the same Russian operatives, working with an organization known as the Internet Research Agency.

Exceeding Previous Estimates

The disclosures show that Russian efforts to influence political opinion in the United States far exceeded the previous estimate.

Facebook said most of the posts, which could have been viewed by voters over Facebook's news feeds or through endorsements and "likes" by other Facebook users, focused on divisive social and political messages such as race relations.

The leading social network, which has 2 billion monthly users worldwide and at least 214 million in the United States alone, said that such "organic" posts that appear in users' news feeds are distinct from more than 3,000 advertisements linked to the Russian agency that Facebook previously disclosed and turned over to congressional committees.

The ads -- many of which also focused on divisive social issues such as race and immigration -- directed people to click the advertiser's pages, where they could then like or share its material.

"These actions run counter to Facebook's mission of building community and everything we stand for. And we are determined to do everything we can to address this new threat," Stretch said in his written testimony.

Automated Tweets

Twitter said it found 2,752 accounts connected with the Internet Research Agency and it had suspended all of them and given the account names to congressional investigators.

The Russia-linked accounts put out 1.4 million election-related tweets from September 2016 through November 15, 2016, nearly half of them automated, the company said.

The company also found nine Russian accounts that bought ads, most of which came from RT, the state-funded news service formerly known as Russia Today. Twitter said last week it would no longer accept ads from RT and Sputnik, another Russian state news outlet.

"State-sanctioned manipulation of elections by sophisticated foreign actors is a new challenge for us -- and one that we are determined to meet," Twitter officials said in written testimony.

Google, the world's largest Internet search engine, announced in a blog post that it found evidence of "limited" misuse of its services by the Russian group, as well as some YouTube channels that were likely backed by Russian agents.

It said that two accounts linked to the Russian group spent $4,700 on ads on its platforms during the 2016 election.

Google said it also found 18 YouTube channels that were likely backed by Russian agents. Those channels hosted 1,108 videos with 43 hours of material, although they racked up just 309,000 views in the United States between June 2015 and November 2016, it said.

"While we have found only limited activity on our services, we will continue to work to prevent all of it, because there is no amount of interference that is acceptable," Google said in the blog post.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa
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