Social media firms under scrutiny for ‘Russian meddling’

Social media firms under scrutiny for 'Russian meddling’

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Media captionFacebook says hundreds of accounts backed by Russian trolls filled news feeds with inflammatory messages

US lawmakers are eyeing new rules for tech companies, citing concerns over Russia’s use of social media platforms during the 2016 election.

The current approach is “not working”, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham said.

He spoke as attorneys from Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared at a Senate panel on extremist content and Russia disinformation in Washington.

A day earlier Facebook said as many as 126m US users may have seen Russia-backed content over the last two years.

“We know bad actors aren’t going to stop their efforts,” said Colin Stretch, general counsel at Facebook. “We’ll have to keep learning and improving to stay ahead of them.”

The tech companies want to fend off new rules. They said they are increasing efforts to identify bots and spam, as well as make political advertising more transparent.

Facebook, for example, said it expects to have 20,000 people working on “safety and security” by the end of 2018 – double the current number.

But senators kept the firms on the defensive during the hearing on Tuesday, the first of two days of questioning from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

  • Reality Check: When 126m isn’t 126m on Facebook
  • Facebook uncovers ‘Russian-funded’ misinformation campaign

“I do appreciate these efforts, but I don’t think it’s enough,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

Ms Klobuchar has proposed legislation that she says would make social media firms subject to the same disclosure rules for political and issue pages as print, radio and television companies.

The companies said they would work with her on the bill, but did not say they would support it.

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Facebook’s Colin Stretch (L), Twitter’s Sean Edgett, and Google’s Richard Salgado testify before a Senate panel

Senators asked why the companies – which view themselves as platforms – should not be treated like other media.

They also questioned whether the firms are up to the task of weighing free speech and privacy rights against concerns over terrorism and state-sponsored propaganda.

“I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me,” said Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana.

What happened during the election?

Russia has repeatedly denied allegations that it attempted to influence the last US presidential election, in which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton.

But Facebook revealed as many as 126m American users may have seen content uploaded by Russia-based operatives in the last two years.

The social networking site said about 80,000 posts published between June 2015 and August 2017 and were seen by about 29m Americans directly.

These posts, which Facebook says were created by a Kremlin-linked company, were amplified through likes, shares and comments, and spread to tens of millions of people.

That company, Internet Research Agency, was also linked to about 2750 Twitter accounts, which have been suspended, Twitter said.

The firm also said it had identified more than 36,000 Russian bots that generated 1.4m automated, election-related Tweets, which may have been viewed as many as 288m times.

Google also revealed on Monday that Russian trolls had uploaded more than 1,000 political videos on YouTube on 18 different channels. The company said they had very low view counts and there was no evidence they had been targeting American viewers.

Most of the posts focused on sowing political and social divisions, the firms have said.

The companies said they used a combination of staff and big data to police that content, disabling fake and spam accounts.

“These actions run counter to Facebook’s mission of building community and everything we stand for,” Mr Stretch said on Tuesday.

In a blog post from earlier this month, Facebook’s Elliot Schrage said that many of the posts did not violate the company’s content policies. They were removed, he said, because they were inauthentic – the Russians behind the posts did not identify themselves as such.

Senator Al Franken, Democrat from Minnesota, asked Facebook – which absorbed much of lawmaker heat – why payment in Russian rubles did not tip off the firm to suspicious activity.

“In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens,” Mr Stretch said. “There are signals we missed,”

Key recent developments:

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  • Nov 2016: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says “the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the (US) election in any way is a pretty crazy idea”
  • Aug 2017: Facebook says it will fight fake news by sending more suspected hoax stories to fact-checkers and publishing their findings online
  • Oct 2017: Google finds evidence that Russian agents spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads in a bid to sway the election, reports say
  • Oct 2017: Twitter bans Russia’s RT and Sputnik media outlets from buying advertising amid fears they attempted to interfere in the election

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