Analysis Lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google did their best Tuesday to persuade congressmen not to pass new laws in the US to regulate online political ads.
"Foreign interference is our elections reprehensible and goes against everything Facebook stands for," the social network's general counsel Colin Stretch told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is digging into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. "We are deeply concerned about all of these threats," he added.
"Those issues are deeply concerning to our company and the broader Twitter community," said the milliblogging website's acting general counsel Sean Edgett. "Abuse of our platform for state-sponsored manipulations is a new challenge and one we are determined to meet."
"We take this very seriously at Google," said the ad giant's director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado. "We have put in place significant resources and cutting edge defensive systems."
Aside from the fact that they put forward their lawyers rather than their CEOs (presumably they were tied up with yet another photo shoot for yet another magazine cover), the big tech companies were at pains to highlight their brand new and shiny ad policies that will stop this from ever happening again.
So, there's no need for new laws that bring the online giants in line with print, radio and television when it comes to ads.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) – who has cosponsored a bill pushing exactly that – wasn't persuaded. "I don’t think it's enough," she responded when told of Facebook's plans to crackdown on dodgy political web ads. "One company will have one way of doings things, another a different way. Management can change; decisions can change. We need some rules of the road."
She asked each representative individually if they will support her legislation. "We're not waiting for legislation to implement…" Facebook's Stretch started before being cut off. So will you support me? "Well, we drew on much of what's in the bill to inform our announcement." Support? "We stand ready to work with you on that legislation." Twitter grunted agreement. Google offered to "work on the nuances" of the law.
But Klobuchar wasn't done. She noted that 90 per cent of the ads that Russian agents planted online in the US during last year's White House race to influence its outcome were "issue ads" rather than direct candidate endorsements or attacks. In other words, the tech companies' new rules on transparent campaigning to tackle this sort of propaganda wouldn't cover them. "We're looking to operationalize… issue ads 2.0… hoping to announce soon," blurted Twitter's Edgett.
The three tech giants were clearly in this together, and so collectively pushed the same line, one of, well, this underhand spinning by the Kremlin all came as a big shock, but don't worry, we got this; believe us, we hate this kind of thing as much as you do, yada, yada. But it was somewhat undermined, however, by the tech companies' own testimony.
Each acknowledged that the impact of political ads over the US presidential election – paid for by Russian agents – was far greater than they have previously admitted to.
Notably, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once mocked the idea that paid-for ads on his service had had any impact on the election. "Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way - I think is a pretty crazy idea," he said at a tech conference.
But as people dug into the issue and the impact became clear, Facebook started changing its tune. It still massively underplayed the issue, however. Just a month ago, the company admitted to having taken money for political ads in which Russians posed as Americans and "amplified divisive social and political messages."
But it was only $100,000 and just 470 fake accounts. The ads had only been seen by 10 million or so netizens – a drop in the ocean. The company refused to hand over more information however, including the actual content of the ads.
Under political pressure, with one senator appearing on television decrying Facebook and pointedly noting that it would "be more transparent and more forthcoming," the company promised to provide more details.
As academics started digging in and put question marks over Facebook's claims, the company responded by cutting off the tools used to analyze that impact and flew its top executives to Washington DC to do a big public relations campaign.
Facebook ran $100k of deliberately divisive Russian ads ahead of 2016 US electionREAD MORE
And then, just a day before the hearing this morning, Facebook admitted that actually there had been 80,000 Russia-linked posts, viewed by 126 million people: more than 10 times bigger that its previous claims.
And Facebook is still playing fast and loose with its stats: it keeps referring to only one Kremlin-backed ad-spouting group – the Internet Research Agency (IRA) – and avoids mention of other political advertising brokers or accounts.
When pressed on this, its general counsel Stretch repeatedly used very specific language: Facebook was only including "Russian sources that are inauthentic and directed at these political issues." Asked again later, Stretch said the social network was only considering "the product of coordinated inauthentic activity."
Facebook also carefully restricted the time period it scrutinized for ad spending, and repeatedly avoided overall statistics. Instead it talked about how small the issue is in terms of percentage of all its users and all their posts. "IRA content was just 0.004 per cent of content in our news feed," assured Stretch.
Twitter and Google took the same tack.
Twitter's acting general counsel Sean Edgett noted that "the number accounts linked to Russia and the presidential election are comparatively small: one one-hundredth of a percent." Twitter also used a narrow timeline.
Whenever any of the tech representatives were asked questions around that careful strategy, they all fell back on literally the same line: "We continue our investigation and we will keep this committee updated with anything new that we learn."
When asked for an updated figure on the ad spending: "Our review is still underway and we will share we what we know with this committee."
When asked by Senator Grassley what the timeline for completion of those reviews were: "Our investigation is still ongoing and our findings may be supplemented. We will keep this committee updated with anything new that we learn." And so on.
Now that the lawyers got off scot free. There were some testy exchanges, not least between Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Facebook's Stretch. "Tell me, with all your companies' abilities to connect millions of data points, how did you miss two data points: a paid-for ad in rubles and a US presidential election?" the senator asked.
"It's a signal we should have been aware of," said Stretch to eyebrows raised so highly on Franken head that they threatened to fly off. "And in hindsight is one that we missed."
"You think?" Franken virtually bellowed in response. A video of the exchange is below.
So are we going to see Congress get behind legislation to force greater accountability and transparency on these enormously powerful companies? Or once congressmen have let off steam will they welcome in the sweet reelection dollars already winging their way to their door and let the issue drop?
I think we all already know the answer. ®
PS: You can download the tech execs' written testimonies to the senate committee from here.