Harris Presses Social Media Companies on Advertising Revenue, Senior Executives Responsible for Countering State-Sponsored Information Operations
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris today pressed representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on the profits each of their companies earned from Russian propaganda in the 2016 presidential election, and the human resources the companies have dedicated to countering state-sponsored information operations.
The representatives could not provide clear answers to Harris’ questions, including failing to provide the amount of revenue they earned from American ads running on Russian propaganda pages. In her questioning, Harris also underscored the need for senior executives and employees dedicated solely to countering state-sponsored influence activities like Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“California is home to many of the world's most successful technology companies and we're proud of that,” Harris said. “And we also know that with that great success comes great responsibility. Your companies, therefore, have a great responsibility to the American public. And as you know, you are the modern town square and the modern postmaster. You are the phone company and the yellow pages. You are the newspaper and the radio broadcaster and the television station. And you are the emergency alert system. Your decisions fundamentally inform public discourse. So, our nation's enemies have used your platforms in a way that has been designed to create and disseminate and advertise hateful rhetoric with the intent and the effect of disrupting our democracy.”
Key exchanges from Harris’ questioning below:
Harris: So, my question to you is – I’d like to talk specifically about American ads. Not the Russian ads. American ads that run on your platforms. There are legitimate ads that appeared alongside of the Russian placement and propaganda pages on Facebook, on Twitter, and even on YouTube. So, can you please tell me that as it relates to those advertisements on Facebook, on Twitter, or in YouTube, how you are addressing that, and in particular, how much money did you make off the legitimate ads that ran alongside the Russia propaganda? And we can start with Alphabet - with Google, please. And that would be the advertisements that ran before your videos on YouTube.
Walker: Sure, the total amount of advertising we discovered across our platforms was $4,700 from the Russian sources.
Harris: That's not my question.
Walker: I understand.
Harris: My question is American advertising, or legitimate advertising. How much money did you make from legitimate advertising that ran alongside the Russia propaganda?
Walker: A de minimis amount Senator, I don't have it in front me. We would be happy to follow up.
Harris: Okay, what about for Twitter?
Edgett: I don’t have the data, but I will follow up.
Harris: Have you not looked into that?
Edgett: I believe are you asking how much advertising revenue we made for the period totally?
Harris: I’m asking how much advertising revenue did you receive from legitimate advertisers that advertised alongside or in connection with Russian propaganda?
Edgett: We haven't done that analysis, but we'll follow up and work on that.
Harris: Okay, what about Facebook?
Stretch: The same is true for Facebook, Senator.
Harris: You have not done that calculation?
Stretch: We have not done that analysis.
Harris: Thank you. And for all three of you, can you please name the senior executive who is responsible in your operation for countering state-sponsored information operations? And if you do not have one, please indicate that as well.
Walker: It's a challenging question because we have a number of people across different teams, including our cyber espionage teams as well as our trust and safety teams. I would say our Chief Security Officer is one such person. Another person would be the head of our trust and safety team, then we also have separate teams at YouTube.
Harris: So I take it you have not - you have not designated an individual as part of your executive team who is responsible, specifically, for state influenced operations.
Walker: I will take responsibility for that, Senator.
Harris: Ok, I appreciate that.
Edgett: There's two people filling that role at Twitter. The first is our General Counsel. I'm currently our Acting General Counsel, so currently it's me. But also our head of our Twitter product, the Twitter product that we all use, has taken responsibility for safety abuse and information quality on the platform, so I feel like that's directly related to your question.
Harris: Okay, but I’d like you each to appreciate and everyone to appreciate that this is a very specific issue. With its own pathology, requiring great amount of resources because we are talking about state-sponsored activity. This is not about an individual conducting this activity and then you need to review it. So, as it relates to state-sponsored information operations, I’m requesting that you name whoever is responsible now, but as we go forward, that you designate in your operation someone at the executive level who is responsible specifically for those types of operations. Understanding that as we know now, there are governments that are willing to put incredible amount of resources into manipulating the American public. And it is beyond what you might need to review in terms of activity on your sites that involves issues of posting inappropriate images and things of that nature. Mr. Stretch.
Stretch: Senator, we have a Chief Security Officer and a threat intelligence team that's acutely focused on this threat. I will take responsibility for our overall response to this threat.
Harris: And how many of your employees are dedicated to addressing state-sponsored operations? Specifically, and if there aren't, please follow up in terms of what you're prepared to dedicate to that.
Stretch: This is a harder question because there are so many vectors that we're investing in. I stated earlier that we have 10,000 people at Facebook across a number of teams who are focused on safety and security generally, and we're doubling that number. The number of people who think of this as their full-time job is something I’ll have to come back to you on.
Harris: From each of the companies, we would appreciate that. You can create automated systems that detect foreign propaganda. For example, you can determine whether a user is active during Moscow business hours or connects through a VPN or registers with a fishy voice over an IP telephone number. And you can feed those signals into a machine that can actually create an algorithm that can allow us to indicate or figure out if propaganda is actually being pushed through. Have you done that as it relates to state-sponsored manipulation of elections?
Edgett: So, our technology is agnostic. We have the technology you're talking about, which is an algorithm that helps us catch the bad actors based on their pattern and behavior and also connect accounts so that if they start new accounts or new networks of accounts, we get those before they tweet. We want to catch that activity all over Twitter. Having automated accounts, malicious actors on Twitter, is a bad experience for our users. We have been tackling that problem for years. And the challenge is, as we get better, these actors get better. So it's a constant game of cat and mouse and one one-upsmanship, but we're committed every single day to making sure we're removing those actors from our platform.
Harris: My time is running out. Perhaps we can have quick answers for the remaining folks.
Walker: Our answer would be similar.
Stretch: The same.
Harris: Ok, thank you.
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