As a Californian, I’m proud that our state boasts so many leading technology companies. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee leading an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, I need the assistance of those same companies in our investigation so that together we can protect future elections from foreign influence.
In January, the Intelligence Community assessed that the Russians’ sophisticated campaign was designed to help Donald Trump, damage Hillary Clinton and sow discord in our democracy by following a playbook that Russia has honed for years in Europe, and which is known in intelligence circles as “Active Measures.” Russia’s most visible intervention was through the hacking of the Democratic Party institutions and the email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which allowed Moscow to steal documents and emails that it then leaked through cut-outs including WikiLeaks.
Less obviously, Russia waged an insidious campaign online, manipulating open internet platforms to inflame partisan and societal tensions and spreading disinformation through a variety of channels. Russia interfered to benefit Trump in the 2016 election, but the Kremlin’s goals were more expansive than tipping a single election. Putin sought – and seeks still – to weaken us from within by exploiting and exacerbating existing political, religious, and racial fissures in our society.
Last week, our committee held a hearing with Facebook, Twitter, and Google as part of our effort to understand the extent of Russia’s activities on these platforms. The testimony of these three companies made clear that the Russian effort was extensive, and offered reason to believe that what we now know may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Facebook was the earliest of the three companies to identify and report Russian activity on its platform, disclosing to the committee that an estimated 126 million American users saw content posted on fake pages linked to a notorious Russian “troll” farm. Facebook also identified more than 3,000 Russian-created advertisements that more than 11 million Facebook users saw.
These ads, which the committee is working to make public, promoted phony pages that spoofed causes ranging from “Black Lives Matter,” to anti-immigration activism, to LGBT rights, to pro-Confederacy sentiments.
Twitter also reported significant activity linked to Russia, including more than 30,000 Russian-linked bot accounts generating in excess of 1 million tweets seen by almost 300 million people worldwide. Additionally, Twitter identified nearly 3,000 human-coordinated accounts, some of which had thousands of followers and were cited in the media or even retweeted by senior Trump campaign officials during the election season. Google had the least to report, but we know YouTube has been a focus for Russia, with the Kremlin-controlled news organization RT’s channel racking up 5 billion views.
I appreciated the willingness of these three companies to testify and provide us with information, but much more will need to be done. At the hearing, I proposed several steps these firms, and others, can take to be part of the solution.
- First, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as other major tech firms, should pool their resources and expertise to undertake a joint investigation to uncover the full extent of Russia’s covert activity on their platforms and present their findings to Congress, and the American people.
- Second, they should work with Congress to make public as much Russia-created content as possible, including individual advertisements and posts, so the public can see the breadth of this Russian propaganda. They should also commit to opening – or in some cases reopening – access to data needed by third-party researchers and academics who are working to understand the manipulation of their platforms.
- Finally, each of these companies should commit to notifying users who were targeted with what we now know was Russian propaganda. That step would help educate users who were served ads or content generated by Russian trolls and play a part in inoculating them against future influence operations.
At the hearing last week, I made the case that these companies, which have become an ubiquitous and integral part of life for tens of millions of Americans, have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their technology isn’t harnessed to tear at the fabric of our democracy. As Congress continues its investigation into Russia’s interference, we will need greater and ongoing cooperation from internet companies to understand the full extent of what Russia did, and to protect ourselves from what they may do next time.
U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) represents California’s 28th congressional district, and is ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Contact him at @RepAdamSchiff.
These companies, who have become a ubiquitous and integral part of life for tens of millions of Americans, have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their technology isn’t harnessed to tear at the fabric of our democracy.