On Russia, tech doesn’t know what it doesn’t know

Taylor Hatmaker

While the Senate has spent the better part of a year making sense of Russia's actions to influence the 2016 election, tech made quick work of its own analysis — or so it thinks.

The glacial pace of Congress is often criticized, particularly contrasted to the tech industry, which still moves fast and breaks things, although Facebook gave up that slogan in 2014. But when it comes to examining a high-stakes blind spot undermining governments and endangering users on the biggest social networks in existence, somehow Congress looks more prepared.

After Facebook's September investigation revealed accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a detail that the company disclosed to Congress on September 6, all three companies have seized on that as both a starting and finishing place for their own investigations. Yesterday, in the first of three hearings with Facebook, Twitter and Google, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch admitted that his company doesn't know if North Korea or Iran bought political ads on Facebook, while admitting that other U.S. adversaries "certainly potentially" could.

Beyond the Internet Research Agency

On Wednesday, Senate Intel Vice Chair Mark Warner voiced his ongoing disappointment with tech's narrow investigation parameters and their failure to proactively ferret out Russian active measures on their platforms.

“I still find it very disturbing that it appears, at least from Twitter and Facebook, that the sense is that all the Russian active measures only originated with one single troll farm in St. Petersburg,” Warner said. "It still appears that most of the work that you’ve provided us is still derivative of your initial reports.

"I was hoping very much that you would come in today and either say 'that was absolutely all of it' or 'we’ve identified other troll farms or other entities.' "

When Warner pressed each company to answer in yes or no form if they'd discovered the full extent of Russian active measures, all three eventually admitted that they haven't. Facebook claimed it hasn't "with certainty." Twitter admitted that it's "still working on it." Google called it "an ongoing investigation."

You bear this responsibility. You've created these platforms and now they're being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.

— Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Warner scolded Facebook leadership for "bragging" about how proactive they were in the French election without doing the due diligence on those accounts with regard to U.S. political activity.

"You've identified 470 accounts from one troll farm in St. Petersburg. There have been plenty of press reports of other troll farms in Russia," Warner said.

"As you became more aware of this problem, you aggressively promoted the fact that you took down 30,000 accounts around the French elections... have you gone back and cross-checked those Russian-related accounts that you took down in France to see if any of those accounts were active in the American election?"

Stretch couldn't answer, stating that he would get back to the panel, a response that Warner deemed "very disappointing" given that the company has known about the hearing for months and that he has brought the issue up before. TechCrunch has also followed up with Facebook to see if they took this step. Update: When asked for comment on Warner’s question about the French election, Facebook pointed TechCrunch to a tweet from Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos:


When asked by Idaho Senator Risch if Facebook, Twitter and Google agreed with his assessment that the issue at hand is "much broader" than just the 2016 election, all three companies did so reluctantly, with Google adding that it's "hard for us to know."

A widening gyre

It's no surprise, then, that incremental updates to initial analyses that underreported the scope of Russia's efforts on the three platforms comes out every week now. Just this morning, Facebook admitted that Instagram content purchased by Russian state-linked actors reached an additional 16 million Americans between October 2016 and November 8.

We can expect an ongoing controlled stream of similar updates as the three tech companies in congressional crosshairs try to balance the appearance of cooperation with lawmakers with their refusal to fully admit the scope of systemic problems on their platforms. The inherent contradiction is akin to so many others we see in Silicon Valley -- like the illusion of transparency in an industry culture of extreme secrecy or Facebook's conviction of its own political potency in ad sales at the same time -- that its chief executive waved off the notion that his company "influenced the election in any way" as a "crazy idea."

Suggesting that the scope of foreign intelligence operations on U.S.-based social platforms goes well beyond what we know now isn't meant to be scaremongering. More, it's an argument that these companies — most notably Facebook with its historic, ironic insistence on "real identity" —  were blinded by growth in a way that made them fail to consider the future consequences of building the most colossal, most efficient global information delivery system of the present day.

"What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change... we are not gonna go away, gentlemen," California Senator Feinstein said on Wednesday, beating the drums of regulation. "This is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers.

"You bear this responsibility. You've created these platforms and now they're being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will."

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