On Nov. 1, Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina opened the hearing positively towards the companies, praising them for their ability to allow lawmakers to better connect with their constituents. He elaborated on how social media and the internet are a large part of our lives. However, the committee then became critical of the social media giants, especially Facebook.
“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is and begin to work in a responsible legislative way to address it?” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware asked.
Facebook has recently acknowledged the presence of politically-motivated ads that were targeted at the American people through its service. Evidence has shown 126 million of the company’s users saw inflammatory ads that were purchased by Kremlin-linked company Internet Research Agency.
During the ongoing discussion of Russian political involvement, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg commented dismissing the allegations that the website hosted foreign political ads, calling it, “a crazy idea.”
Zuckerberg and Facebook have since attempted to assuage Congress and the general public that they are doing everything in their power to combat the developing problem of foreign interference in U.S. elections by launching an internal investigation, as well as promising to hire over 1,000 new employees to manually sift through political advertising.
Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, mentioned that the abuse of social media platforms for state-sponsored political manipulation is a newfound problem within the medium, a sentiment echoed by the subcommittee members. The U.S. has had laws regulating transparency within advertising in print, television and radio for years, but through a loophole in the specificity of the language, internet advertisements are not currently covered.
The tech giants have voiced support for legislation to bring more transparency to their platforms. One of these bills, The Honest Ads Act, sponsored by Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Mark Warner of Virginia and co-sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, would require anyone who spends more than a certain amount on political advertising to disclose personal information to the IRS, as is required for political advertising on other platforms.
In 2010, Facebook and Google both spoke out against federal regulation of political advertising on their platforms when the Federal Election Commission exempted Google from rules that required the identification of an ad’s buyer.
The hearing became heated when Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, asked Facebook why it accepted payment in foreign currency for American political ads and how “Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them in the personal connections with its user, [could] somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in rubles, were coming from Russia?”
Colin Stretch, general counsel for Facebook, noted the rejection of a foreign currency would not have properly solved the problem.
This statement did not satiate the Senator’s desire to impress upon the Facebook attorney that the subcommittee’s purpose within the hearing was to force the companies to actually think through the problem.
The companies did admit the problem of foreign-sponsored advertising on their platforms was more widespread than they first believed, with Google admitting that more than 1,000 videos were uploaded to YouTube by the Internet Research Agency and Twitter admitting over 131,000 tweets were published to its platform by the same agency.