Dan Morain

Kamala Harris gets trolled – and puts Twitter, Facebook on notice about Russia

From left, Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter's Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker, are sworn in for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election activity and technology, on Capitol Hill.
From left, Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter's Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker, are sworn in for a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian election activity and technology, on Capitol Hill. AP

Kamala Harris headed to the Hamptons in the summer to do what ambitious politicians do: make new best friends by raising money for allies and building her national fundraising base.

The New York Post’s Page Six dryly called California’s junior senator the “Great Freshman Hope,” and noted she was being hosted by Michael Kempner, founder of an East Coast public relations firm and a bundler for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

 
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Breitbart got hold of the story from the right, dismissing Harris as “more slogans than substance.” The online site Mic picked up the story, quoting a Bernie Sanders supporter chattering about Harris’ “alleged ties to Wall Street and insufficient commitment to populist economic issues” and RoseAnn DeMoro, the California Nurses Association leader and Sanders booster, as dismissing Harris.

The Page Six item begat snark from the right, hits from the left and a smart analysis in the L.A. Times. And denizens of Twitter, whoever they were, went on the attack, shredding and flaming, protected by the darkness of made up handles.

‘This is not about Americans engaged in free speech,’ Harris told me later. ‘It is about Russia, a country that is an adversary, engaged in intentional interference’ in our presidential election. ‘This is not a First Amendment issue.’

“Her words mean nothing. She’s a fraud,” one tweet said. Said another: “you’re an out of touch corporate elitist who pays lip service to progressive ideals.” From the right, “Crazy Kamala at it again,” and “Kamala covering up again for illegal immigrants.” And then there was the truly ugly stuff, a sample of what’s to come in the campaigns ahead.

Harris’ campaign aides analyzed nearly 4,700 tweets in the hours after the Mic piece ran, and concluded more than a fourth of them came from trolls, if not bots, which are programmed to tweet. Hard to say whether they were Russia-based. But some clearly fit the profile. Some were tweeting around the clock. Do they have day jobs or are they making a living tweeting crazy stuff?

Readers need to beware, but deciphering propaganda isn’t easy. On the web, all the content gets equal billing, though the more outrageous stuff, whether spread by foreign governments or by campaign operatives, gets amplified, and then some. Some of it has been reflected in seemingly mainstream reports that Harris is cozy with Wall Street. I doubt mortgage lenders she sued as California attorney general had that impression.

Trolling was the topic on Capitol Hill the other day when lawyers for Google, Facebook and Twitter testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which Harris is a member, about why and how their platforms were used and abused by Russians during the 2016 presidential election.

The internet knows no borders, they said. “We try to be unbiased across the world,” said Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel.

Sure, they think globally, but Google, Facebook and Twitter pay homage to the swamp, spending a combined $47.1 million on lobbying in the past 22 months in Washington, D.C., according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That might suggest Congress will do little to infringe on their business, except that senators did seem worked up. They do have an interest, beyond the well-being of the Republic. What happens on the internet can, after all, affect their careers.

Harris was pointed in her questioning of her home state companies, opening by describing social media companies as the modern town square, post office, newspaper and television, then got to the guts of the matter: How much money did the companies make from ads that appeared alongside the fake news from Russia? Not a single executive could answer. They all said they’d get back to her.

Harris asked whether they had executives who were directly responsible for countering what she called state-sponsored influence such as Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. They did not.

Holding copies of filings made by the companies to the Securities and Exchange Commission, she pointed out that they disclose to investors that one of the potential dampers on their growth would be government regulation.

“This is not about Americans engaged in free speech,” Harris told me later. “It is about Russia, a country that is an adversary, engaged in intentional interference” in our presidential election. “This is not a First Amendment issue.”

No one can say for sure whether the Russian ads and tweets swayed the outcome of the 2016 election. But governments spread propaganda to shape opinion and influence behavior.

Clearly, some people think internet ads matter. On that same day that the lawyers were testifying, Facebook released its third quarter earnings. Exceeding Wall Street’s expectations, the company said ad revenue reached $10.1 billion. The companies probably could fix the troll problem quickly. But they make money from ads based on eyeballs. The more users, the more revenue, whether the users are here or in St. Petersburg.

If anything, Facebook, Twitter and Google will become greater parts of our lives and our elections. But these American-born and -grown companies have a responsibility to us. They are, as Harris said, on notice. We all have a right to our soapboxes in the town square that is Twitter and Facebook. But the Constitution protects those of us who live here, not Russians who would sow chaos.

Sen. Diane Feinstein did not hold back when questioning representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter on Nov. 1. “You’ve created these platforms…and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it…or we will,” sh

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