Tuesday's hearing by a Senate judiciary subcommittee comes a day after the prepared testimonies of Facebook and Twitter revealed that the reach of the Russian-connected disinformation campaign on their platforms was much larger than initially reported.
As many as 126 million Facebook users may have seen content produced and circulated by Russian operatives. Twitter said it had discovered that 2,752 accounts controlled by Russians, and more than 36,000 Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. And Google disclosed for the first time that it had found 1,108 videos with 43 hours of content related to the Russian effort on YouTube. It also found $4,700 worth of Russian search and display ads.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) opened the hearing by describing the dangers posed by the ability of terrorists to recruit followers over social media and foreign governments to meddle in American democracy.
"This is the national security challenge of the 21st Century," Graham said.
But some senators pushed the tech companies to explain more about what their services can and can't do -- and what capabilities they have to prevent abuse. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) challenged Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch with a series of pointed questions. "I'm trying to get us down from La La land here," Kennedy said. "You have 5 million advertisers that change every year, every month, probably every second... You do not have the ability to know about every one of those advertisers, do you?"
When Stretch acknowledged that advertisers likely can obscure their identities, Kennedy interrupted him to ask pointedly, "Do you have a profile on me?" Then he asked if Facebook knew the movies that his fellow senator Graham liked, the bars he visited, who his friends were?
Stretch replied that Facebook has systems to prevent such invasions of privacy. "The answer is absolutely not... We have designed our system to avoid exactly that."
After Kennedy sharply reminded Stretch that he was under oath, Kennedy turned his attention to Google lawyer Richard Salgado. The senator demanded to know whether the company was essentially a newspaper, rather than merely a neutral platform, given its role in distributing news reports worldwide. The issue has important consequences because, under federal law, technology platforms do not have the same legal responsibility for material they carry as traditional news sources that employ journalists.
"We are not a newspaper. We are a platform that shares information," replied Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security. "This is a platform from which news can be read from many sources."
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) also took aim at Facebook, blasting the company for failing to discover the Russian online influence campaign sooner, especially given that many of the ads were paid for in rubles, the Russian currency. "American political ads and Russian money, rubles: How could you not connect those two dots!"
Stretch replied, "In hindsight we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed."
Franken also demanded to know if Facebook would refuse American political ads in the future paid for in rubles or the North Korean currency, the won. Stretch said the company was going to seek to stop political manipulation by foreign actors, but the type of payment is not the most important factor.
"It's relatively easy to change currencies," he said.
The most important unanswered question going into the hearing, outside experts said, is whether the tech companies have evidence that might substantiate allegations that the Russians colluded with Donald Trump's political campaign, which made Facebook in particular a focus of its election efforts in 2016. Trump and his campaign officials have repeatedly denied allegations of collusion, but questions about the role played by Russia are at the heart of investigations by Capitol Hill and Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose first round of charges against Trump campaign figures were unsealed Monday.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said that his staff's review of the 3,000 Russian-bought ads on Facebook suggests that most sought to sow discord around sensitive social issues, not try to convince Americans to vote for either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton. "Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States. The goal is to discredit our democracy and divide us," Grassley said.
Tuesday's hearing offers lawmakers a direct and highly public opportunity to question tech company officials about how their platforms were manipulated, what they did in response, and what they plan to do to thwart similar efforts in the future. None of the companies are sending their top internal security researchers to the hearing, opting instead to send senior company lawyers. Also testifying will be Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent and disinformation expert from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Michael S. Smith III, a terrorism analyst.
“We are trying in the Subcommittee to lay out the Kremlin playbook on election interference generally, since this is something that they do in a great number of countries,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel hosting the first of the three hearings, in an interview on Monday. “And we are looking to delve into which elements of the the Kremlin playbook were deployed in the United States specifically.”
Testifying at Tuesday's hearing are Stretch, Salgado and Twitter's acting general counsel Sean Edgett.
In his opening remarks, Stretch said, "The foreign interference we saw is reprehensible. That foreign actors, hiding behind safe accounts, abused our platform and other Internet services to try to sow division and discord -- and to try to undermine the election -- is an assault on democracy that is directly contrary to our values and violates everything Facebook stands for."
Google's Salgado said that while the company has found relatively small amounts of Russian manipulation on its services, "We understand that any misuse of our platforms for this purpose can be very serious."
He also said the company would create a publicly accessible database of all election ads purchased on Google's ad platforms and on YouTube. The company will also publish a transparency reports for election ads which will identify the purchasers and how much money was spent.
The hearing, as well as Wednesday's hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence committees, comes amid pushes by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to pass new legislation forcing tech companies to disclose information about political ads sold and distributed on their networks. Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that colleagues on the committee chose to wait until they heard testimony of the tech companies before they signaled their interest.
The bill, dubbed the "Honest Ads Act," would require digital platforms with more than 50 million monthly viewers to create a public database of political ads purchased by a person or group who spends more than $500. The public file would include the ad, a description of the targeted audience, the number of views it generated, the date and time it ran, its price and contact information for the purchaser.
During the hearing, Sen. Klobuchar pointedly asked each company executive whether they would support the bill. None of them said yes.
At one point, Facebook was asked directly whether its service could affect the outcome of the election.
Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii asked Facebook’s Stretch if he can say definitively that Russian efforts did not influence the outcome of the election. When Stretch said no, she asked again, citing the closeness of the presidential contest, “Can you say that it didn’t have an impact on the election?
"Senator, we’re not well positioned to judge why any one person or an entire electorate voted as it did," he said.
Shortly after the election, in November, Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that fake news on Facebook could have impacted that election as “a crazy idea.”
But even as lawmakers move to prevent future manipulation, they will use the hearings to probe how foreign actors were able to disseminate propaganda. "Russia will be the star of the hearings," said Darrell West, the director of the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation.
Beyond providing the public with a fuller picture of election meddling, experts said the hearings symbolize a broader recognition of the significance massive tech platforms hold in American discourse and politics.
"It's hard to reconcile the tens of billions of dollars of profit they make with the lack of attention they've had with something that could possibly affect our democracy," said Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade organization that represents digital media companies. "The questioning is deeply uncomfortable for them because it gets to the root of their business model, which few people really understand."