Appearing in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Facebook confirmed reports that Russian-bought ads were delivered to an estimated 126m people; Twitter said there had been 288 million automated, election-related tweets from accounts tied to Russia in the six weeks before polling day; and Google reported that more than 1,000 YouTube videos had been uploaded by individuals linked to Russian actors.
Facebook, in particular, came in for criticism, with Sen. Al Franken, for example, demanding to know how a platform “which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, [could] somehow not make the connection that electoral ads, paid for in roubles, were coming from Russia?”
Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, argued that the currency of payments was a signal but not in itself proof. “We are not able to see beyond the activity we see on the platform,” he said. He also admitted that the platform could not track all the 5m advertisers using it every month.
While Facebook attempted to downplay the impact of these ads, Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review noted that they were “an example of the company’s social machinery working exactly as it was meant to.”
And Buzzfeed earlier this week highlighted the platform’s sales pitch to political advertisers which included 14 targetable segments ranging across the political spectrum from very liberal “youthful urbanites” to very conservative “great outdoors” types.
All three tech companies reported they were developing policies to better address the issues raised but stopped short of backing new legislation such as the Honest Ads Act.
“I like that they are contrite, but these issues are existential and they aren’t taking any structural changes,” said Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia University.
“These are Band-Aids,” he told the New York Times.
Sourced from New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, Columbia Journalism Review; additional content by WARC staff