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Washington, D.C. - U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google on their response to Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election as well as their ongoing attempts to sow divisions in American society by exploiting social media. Hearing witnesses included Colin Strech, Vice President and General Counsel of Facebook, Sean Edgett, General Counsel of Twitter, and Kent Walker, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Google.
“It is very clear that Russian activities on your social media platforms go far beyond the paid political ads that appeared last year,” Senator Collins told the social media executives. “The primary purpose of Russians’ active measures is to exploit and aggravate the divisions in American society and to undermine public confidence in our democratic institutions. And those efforts have not stopped. They continue to this very day.”
As an example, Senator Collins cited three unpaid posts on Facebook pages created by the Russian-linked Internet Research Agency that referenced Maine Governor Paul LePage, alternately calling him a “racist” and a “patriot.”
One of the posts from 2016 erroneously stated in part that, “LePage called up white people to kill blacks.” A second negative post a few days later stated that, “It is not a secret that America is the country of white supremacy and people like LePage must be replaced from their positions in the government. America doesn't need racist politicians. Black people are tired of white supremacy.”
Senator Collins continued by noting that “[I]n August of 2017, Maine’s governor was the subject of a positive post…In this case, the post defended comments that the government made at the time about Confederate monuments. The post ends with its own incendiary conclusion. It says, ‘When even the governor is not safe from leftist haters, then what can we say about ordinary citizens? Liberals are now acting like terrorists. They are trying to intimidate everyone who disagrees with them. Hope our police will take appropriate measures against these cowards.’”
Senator Collins pointed out that Governor LePage is not up for reelection and is term limited, so the purpose of these posts in particular was to further polarize American society rather than influence an election.
“The posts are just three among 80,000 that reveal the Russian playbook of playing both sides off against each other and of sowing discord and division with inflammatory rhetoric,” said Senator Collins. “The Russians continue to push this kind of divisive rhetoric to this very day. So my question to you is what are you as American companies doing to effectively counter unpaid content posted by the Russians that is clearly designed to specifically polarize and anger the American people? And I would argue that you have a special obligation here given your reach in American society and the fact that you are patriotic American companies.”
“Senator, we agree that we have a special responsibility here. We value the trust that users place in our services. And when they show up to connect with friends and family and to discuss issues, they need to know that the discourse they see is authentic,” Colin Strech, VP and General Counsel of Facebook, replied. “What is so painful about this type of content is that it exploits truly and passionately held views and then inflames them to create more discord and more distrust. To prevent this, we are investing much more heavily in authenticity.”
Executives from Google and Twitter reaffirmed their commitment to removing deceptive and divisive content and described some of their efforts to identify these posts.