WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., pressed representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google Wednesday on how Russian accounts used the websites to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Lawmakers spent more than three hours questioning the delegates, with Manchin using his time to ask about how a Russian network used the site as well as the platforms’ roles regarding how the public receives news.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” he said. “This is an American issue that we’re concerned about.”
Manchin began by asking the representatives about RT America, a Russian-state owned television station, and how it was able to grow its presence online.
“RT America TV broadcasts negative programs, derogatory information about the United States,” he said. “It is essentially information warfare against the United States.”
Manchin asked the representatives if they allowed the outlet to purchase advertising.
Acting general counsel for Twitter Sean Edgett said as of “a week or so ago,” it does not allow RT to purchase space on the platform.
Twitter announced its decision regarding RT and Sputnik, another Russian government-affiliated news outlet, on Oct. 26.
“This decision was based on the retrospective work we’ve been doing around the 2016 U.S. election and the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that both RT and Sputnik attempted to interfere with the election on behalf of the Russian government,” the social media platform said in a press release.
Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said the company is focused on providing transparency regarding multiple forms of government-purchased broadcasting on its websites.
“The same is true for Facebook, senator,” added Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel.
According to a January report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, RT used Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube to provide the public with what the report’s authors described as “alternative news content.”
“RT is making its social media operations a top priority, both to avoid broadcast TV regulations and to expand its overall audience,” the report said.
The Russian government additionally spends $190 million a year on distributing RT America programming, which is broadcasted on its television channel and also shared online.
Manchin questioned the representatives on if they would support the Honest Ads Act, a bill that would regulate online political advertisements. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the bill, and Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have cosponsored the legislation.
Twitter announced Oct. 24 it will launch a “transparency center” to show all advertisements running on the website and those associated with campaigns.
Stretch said Facebook would be happy to work on passing legislation, and Edgett said there have been productive discussions on legislation.
“We have some fine tuning we would love to talk about,” he said.
Manchin ended his remarks by saying the websites have a role in protecting people from misinformation, noting how Russian users ran Facebook campaigns targetting veterans and service members with false news stories.
“We’re getting hit from every way you possibly can imagine, and you all are possibly one of the largest distributors of news and there can be no doubt that it has to be authentic and true,” he said.
“You cannot allow what’s going on against the United States of America. You are on the front lines with us.”
House Democrats on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released Wednesday information regarding social media campaigns funded by Russian-linked accounts. The advertisements regarded issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and opposition to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.