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Fiery exchanges on Capitol Hill as lawmakers scold Facebook, Google and Twitter

On Nov. 1, lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter faced persistent questions and criticism from the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Senators from both parties took tech company officials to task in a hearing Wednesday for failing to better identify, defuse and investigate Russia's campaign to manipulate American voters over social media during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In the second of three Capitol Hill hearings this week on Russian's online information operation, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee challenged Facebook, Google and Twitter in strikingly direct terms that, at times, seemed to carry the implicit threat of legislation that could rein in the nation's wildly profitable technology industry.

“I don't think you get it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), whose home state includes all three companies. “What we're talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we're talking about is the beginning of cyberwarfare. What we're talking about is a major foreign power with sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country. We are not going to go away gentlemen. And this is a very big deal.”

She was directly addressing the three company lawyers — Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch; Google's general counsel, Kent Walker, and Twitter's acting general counsel, Sean Edgett — but more broadly her remarks and those of other senators underscored the rising frustration on Capitol Hill with the technology industry generally. For the first time in years, legislation imposing new restrictions on how the companies operate — especially when it comes to political advertising — is being discussed seriously in Washington, despite the work of the industry's large, well-connected lobbying teams.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Nov. 1 scolded technology companies for their response to Russian manipulation of their platforms. (Video: Reuters)

Feinstein raised that threat explicitly after complaining about the industry's inability to thwart Russia's effort to influence the 2016 election, saying, “You bear this responsibility. You've created these platforms. And now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”

The tone of the comments from committee members were similar from members of both parties, though Republicans and Democrats appeared to signal disagreements about what impact the Russian information operation had on the results of an election won narrowly by Republican Donald Trump.

“This isn't about re-litigating the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This isn't about who won or lost. This is about national security. This is about corporate responsibility. And this is about the deliberate and multifaceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power.”

He also cited a comment by Stretch, the Facebook lawyer, in his testimony regarding Facebook's goal of “bringing people together.”

Burr pointed to news reports that the Russian influence operation successfully prompted Americans to gather for political rallies promoted on the Russian-controlled pages. “In this case, people were brought together to foment conflict. ... I would say Facebook failed in its goal.”

The hearing comes on the heels of revelations that the reach of the Russian-connected disinformation campaign on Facebook, Google, and Twitter was much larger than initially reported. As many as 126 million Facebook users may have seen content produced and circulated by Russian operatives, and Stretch said Wednesday that 20 million more may have seen such content on Instagram, which Facebook owns.

Twitter said it had discovered 2,752 accounts controlled by Russians, and more than 36,000 Russian bots tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. Google disclosed for the first time this week 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.

All three company lawyers said they were appalled by what they had discovered about the Russian effort, but they also sought to portray the content posted by the Russians as exceedingly small parts of the overall flow of information across their platforms. All also promised to keep cooperating with the committee in trying to learn more about what happened and potentially support legislation.

But the senators did not sound placated. Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, suggested that the Russians were successful at influencing American voters. “If you look back the results, it's a pretty good return on investment.”

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on Nov. 1 called on President Trump, Congress and Americans to do more to address the online threat from Russia. (Video: Reuters)

There was also frustration expressed that the company's sent their top lawyers, not top executives. “I'm disappointed you're here and not your CEOs,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressed particular frustration that the Russian-bought ads and other posts sought to divide Americans over sensitive issues such as race, immigration, gay rights and gun ownership. “You have a special obligation here given your reach in American society,” she said.

Stretch, the Facebook lawyer said, “We agree that we have a special responsibility here.”