On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee kicked off the first of three hearings this week examining the relationship between social media and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The hearings mark the first time that lawmakers will hear testimony from Google, Facebook and Twitter around how their platforms were and are manipulated as part of Russian political disinformation campaigns targeting U.S. voters.
“This is really a critical hearing,” Committee Chair Lindsey Graham declared in his opening remarks. “It marks the first time we will have heard from the three agencies about exactly what is going on and what exactly they are prepared to do to stop it.”
Graham struck a friendly note early on, informing the panel that “the purpose of this hearing is to figure out how we can help you.”
Predictably, the tech representatives weren’t fooled by a group of lawmakers that appears increasingly eager to regulate their ad operations.
As Tuesday’s hearing was the first of three, the big question is just how cooperative the three companies would be. All three elected to send their general counsel rather than top executives to the hearing, a move that signaled they’d prefer to remain tight lipped and well within the comfort zones they’re used to in friendlier territory. They mostly succeeded, even when things got a bit awkward for a trio of companies far too accustomed to exercising near total control of the narrative around their products.
None of these tech giants are used to having their feet held to the fire, and some members of the committee, particularly Louisiana Senator John Kennedy and Minnesota Senator Al Franken, proved eager to do so. When Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, who bore the brunt of the committee’s ire, responded tepidly to his line of questioning about the company’s responsibility, Franken rebuked the panel explosively.
“You put billions of data points together all the time… you can’t put together rubles and a political ad? How did you not connect those two dots?”
Kennedy picked up a line of questioning threaded early on by Graham, turning to exactly the kind of rapid fire questions that the tech companies dispatched their legal reps to dodge.
Kennedy: “Did China run ads in the last election cycle to try to impact our election? Did Turkmenistan?”
Stretch: “Not that I’m aware of”
Kennedy: “How can you be aware? You’ve got five million advertisers and you’re gonna tell me that you can trace the origin of all of those advertisers?”
Stretch: “No sir, I cannot”
Kennedy: “That’s your testimony under oath?”
On the issue of banning foreign currency in political ads — and many other issues, including how they’ll deal with shell companies — the trio was non-committal. They refused to endorse Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s bipartisan Honest Ads Act when pressed, gesturing that they would be willing to cooperate on legislation but they’d really prefer to self-govern (since that’s gone so well). Klobuchar took that opportunity to skewer the regulation-phobic companies. “There wouldn’t be an outside enforcer of any of your policies, is that right?,” she demanded. They reluctantly admitted she was right and surely took notes for how to handle tomorrow’s likely continuation of questioning around that legislation.
That sheepish admission and others were about the only candid moments that the hearing produced, as it swung from Russian intelligence operations to Islamic extremists and even to a predictably useless interlude from Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who squandered his time with a distracting line of questioning that accused the companies of partisanship.
The exchanges set a tone for tomorrow’s intelligence committee hearings, which are likely to be meatier and more aggressive, particularly in the Senate. In round one, Google, Facebook and Twitter cooperated, but they weren’t particularly helpful, opting to mostly cover their asses with pre-planned statements and platform reports designed to appease lawmakers and stave off regulation. All three were eager to tout their own home remedies for political disinformation campaigns — hire actual humans, build AI, et cetera — but remained unwilling to conduct the kind of deep self examination necessary to inoculate themselves outright.