Tech Companies Get an Earful From Intelligence Committee

Senators accuse executives of just not getting extent of Russian meddling

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., left, and ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., have challenged technology companies for their response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Big technology companies faced a second day of public lashing on Capitol Hill, with the Senate Intelligence Committee accusing companies of a lackluster response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

On Tuesday, executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter told the Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee that ads and automated non-advertising content generated by Moscow-backed companies reached hundreds of millions of Americans during the 2016 election — a number that is far higher than previous estimates offered by the companies.

On Wednesday, it was the tech titans turn in front of Senate Intelligence, and lawmakers heard more bad news. 

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch told the committee that another 16 million Americans were exposed to posts on Instagram, the company’s photo-sharing app. Taking into account the 126 million people who were exposed to ads and posts on Facebook, Americans exposed to fake accounts during the 2016 election numbered around 150 million.

Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner scolded executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter for dismissing lawmakers’ concerns about their platforms being used by Russia to interfere in the 2016 election and for taking months to acknowledge that they were indeed manipulated.

The Virginia Democrat showed Facebook posts from a group called Army of Jesus that purportedly was a religious group. If users liked a post, the group later showed a picture of Jesus with boxing gloves dueling Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, with the message “Like if you want Jesus to win.”

Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina displayed two ads posted by Russia-based fake groups on Facebook, one called Heart of Texas and another called United Muslims of America. The groups pushed competing events in Houston in 2016, one promoting Islam and another opposing Islam.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a former chairwoman of the Intelligence panel and the current ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told the tech executives that their companies “just don’t get it” about Russian interference in the 2016 election. “What we are talking about is a cataclysmic change and the beginning of a cyber war.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins listed a handful of Facebook posts targeting Maine Gov. Paul LePage that called him a “white supremacist” even though LePage is not up for re-election. Collins said there were several such posts all over the country targeting officials in her state.

Kent Walker, general counsel of Google, told the Intelligence Committee that his company will release a report on election ads in 2018 that will reveal who’s buying ads and how much is being spent. The company will allow only U.S. nationals to pay for political advertising, he said. 

Correction 2:06 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the dates of the Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee and Senate Intelligence Committee hearings.

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