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Nov. 2, 2017, 10:33 a.m.
Audience & Social

Facebook, Google, and Twitter faced Congress this week to talk Russian meddling. Here’s what we learned (and didn’t)

“Your actions need to catch up to your responsibilities.”

The big tech companies are finally opening up — albeit reluctantly — about just how extensively Russia used their tools to influence voters during last year’s presidential election. And, well, yikes.

Plenty had trickled out prior to the hearings already — for instance, that in addition to Russian-bought ads, Russia-linked Facebook accounts had helped organize “at least 60 rallies, protests and marches” across the U.S. “publicized or financed by eight Russia-backed Facebook accounts,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Is government regulation imminent? Is Facebook a publisher? How many bots are on Twitter exactly? What about all the mis- and disinformation on these platforms that aren’t paid ads, but can still sow discord?

“If anyone tells you they’ve got this all figured out, they’re kidding themselves — and we can’t afford to kid ourselves about what happened last year and continues to happen today,” Senator Richard Burr (Republican, North Carolina) said during his opening remarks on Wednesday at a Congressional open hearing, attended by representatives from the three platforms. “You three companies have developed platforms that have tremendous reach and therefore tremendous influence. That reach and influence is enabled by the enormous amount of data you collect on your users and their activities. Your actions need to catch up to your responsibilities.”

We learned that some congresspeople are not 100 percent familiar with social media (“No offense, I don’t use Twitter,” “What is a bot versus a troll?” “What is an impression versus a click”).

We learned a little bit about the three platforms approach to advertising and security and abuse on their platforms, though representatives for the companies were at times (and unsurprisingly) a little mealy-mouthed. (Google, it seemed to me at least, got off a little easier than the others.)

Facebook spent a lot of words highlighting that its goal is for “authentic” users to post authentic content. All pointed out their own renewed efforts — Twitter banning certain advertisers, Google updating quality search guidelines and including fact-check labels, Facebook ramping up its security team. Twitter made a point of mentioning it would be donating money earned from Russia Today to research efforts (though leading up to the U.S. 2016 election it apparently offered the Russian state–owned television network up to a 15 percent share of its elections-related advertising; whoops).

The House Intelligence Committee also released a sampling of these ads on Wednesday, along with metadata such as the amount paid for each ad (in Rubles!, several committee members fervently emphasized) and impressions and clicks for these ads. Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic calculated the astonishingly high engagement rates:

Then shortly after the hearings Facebook proceeded with its third quarter earnings call, during which it announced $10 billion in quarterly revenue and told analysts it’s planning to spend heavily on security. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

POSTED     Nov. 2, 2017, 10:33 a.m.
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