Senators blast tech companies for their failure to stop Russian mischief on their platforms

Key Points
  • General counsels for Google, Facebook and Twitter testify before the Senate Intelligence committee.
  • Senators repeatedly interrupt the answers.
  • When asked if they were satisfied with the monitoring of foreign influence during the 2016 election, the company representatives said no.
Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, right, and ranking member Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, listen during a hearing on social media influence in the 2016 U.S. elections in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Members of Congress blasted representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google on Wednesday for what they said was their inadequate response to Russian mischief made on their platforms during the 2016 election.

"I don't think you get it," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the companies' general counsels during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. "What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we're talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare."

Facebook's Colin Stretch, Twitter's Sean Edgett and Google's Kent Walker revealed little new information about the extent of foreign influence on their platforms.

Representatives of the companies appeared before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday and were due to testify at a House Intelligence Committee hearing later Wednesday.

The companies appeared under-prepared to answer some of the questions on Wednesday. Stretch, Edgett and Walker produced statistics of Russia-linked advertisements and accounts, but questions about more general Russia propaganda on the platforms and socially divisive content drew only silences and promises to provide the information at a later date.

Facebook said this week that Russian-backed election content on the platform reached 126 million Americans; Twitter found 36,000 Russian accounts were active during the election; and Google said pro-Russian groups purchased $4,700 worth of ads on its platforms.

Senators repeatedly interrupted the general counsels' answers and moved on before allowing them to finish, clearly exasperated by the counsels' tendency to provide long-winded answers — and often by the answers themselves.

"It's not clear that you or the public understand the degree of this," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "You need to stop paying lip service."

Wyden asked the three whether they were satisfied with their platforms' monitoring of foreign influence during the 2016 presidential election — all three said no.

"This is not a Democrat or Republic issue. This is an American issue", said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV. "You cannot allow what's going on against the United States of America. You're on the front lines with us."

Manchin said the companies' inaction threatened the security, safety and "sovereignty of our nation."

The week's hearings could mark a turning point for the internet giants as discussions of regulation come to fore. Twitter and Facebook have each moved to increase transparency around advertising, after public comments by CEOs Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg.

Several senators indicated during Wednesday's hearing that legislation could be on the horizon for the tech companies, though they varied on the extent.

Manchin asked for the companies' reactions to the proposed Honest Ads Act, which would require greater information around political content . Only Twitter provided an answer, and it was mostly supportive. Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said any legislation may have only the "lightest touch."