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What you need to know about Twitter, Facebook and election interference

Jana Kasperkevic Sep 29, 2017
This week Twitter announced it removed more than a 200 accounts that violated its policies. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

What you need to know about Twitter, Facebook and election interference

Jana Kasperkevic Sep 29, 2017
This week Twitter announced it removed more than a 200 accounts that violated its policies. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Congress is taking a closer look at how different technology platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook were used by foreign actors during the 2016 presidential election. On Thursday, Twitter officials found themselves in the hot seat as they testified on Capitol Hill about the company’s findings on its role in facilitating Russian influence in the election.

What did Twitter find?

In a blog post on its website, the company said that its internal investigation revealed:

  • 22 Twitter accounts corresponding to fake Facebook accounts, all of which had been subsequently suspended
  • 179 accounts in violation of company’s rules, none of which were registered as advertisers on Twitter.
  • Twitter also analyzed ads purchased by three accounts associated with Russian Today, a  government-funded Russian television network that has been accused of interfering with the 2016 election. The three accounts — @RT_com, @RT_America, and @ActualidadRT — spent $274,100 in U.S. ads in 2016. They promoted 1,823 Tweets “that definitely or potentially targeted the U.S. market.”

This news comes weeks after Facebook revealed the results of a similar internal investigation. 

What did Facebook find?

On September 6, Facebook announced that its investigation found the following:

  • 470 inauthentic accounts and pages that violated the company’s policies
  • Between June 2015 and May 2017, these accounts spent about $100,000 on about 3,000 ads. “Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia,” wrote Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer.
  • Stamos said that the ads didn’t “specifically reference the U.S. presidential election, voting or a particular candidate. Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”
  • The company also looked for other ads that might have originated in Russia and found “approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads”

Facebook has turned over its findings to Congress. “We have shared our findings with U.S. authorities investigating these issues, and we will continue to work with them as necessary,” Stamos wrote.

In a Facebook Live video Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, said the company plans to ramp up its security teams and expand its coordination with global election commissions.

What does the Russian government say?

Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, told the New York Times that Russia was not involved in any way and that the Kremlin does not even know how to buy Facebook ads. “We have never done it, and the Russian side has never been involved in this,” he said.

Is the U.S. the only country that has had these issues with Facebook?

Definitely not. The company has been called on to police fake news content during elections in countries like the U.K., France and Germany. Earlier this month, Facebook said that it removed “tens of thousands” of fake accounts in Germany prior to its election.

Is this why Russia is threatening to ban Facebook?

No. Russia is saying that the reason why Facebook could be banned in 2018 is because it is not complying with its local storage laws. Any company that collects any personal information about Russian citizens must store it on Russian soil. Facebook is not the first tech company to be threatened under this law. According to CNN, this is the reason why LinkedIn was banned in Russia last year.

So what’s next?

Probably a lot more hearings. The Senate, for one, did not seem happy with Twitter’s answers on Thursday.

“I am more than a bit surprised in light of all the public interest in this subject over the last few weeks that anyone from the Twitter team would think that the presentation they made to the senate staff today even began to answer the kind of questions that we’d asked,” said Mark Warner, a Democratic Senator from Virginia.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has invited executives from Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet (formerly known as Google) to appear at a public hearing on November 1, according to CNBC. The House of Representatives Intelligence Committee also said it will be holding a hearing to “better understand how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election.”


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