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Both Sides Against the Meddle [The Interface]

Yesterday, I described tech companies' initial appearance before a Senate subcommittee as political t
November 1 · Issue #18 · View online
The Interface
Yesterday, I described tech companies’ initial appearance before a Senate subcommittee as political theater. Today’s appearance felt like political theater as well — but it was a much better show. The reason is that members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee appeared much more familiar with the basic workings of platforms like Facebook than their counterparts on the Judiciary Committee, and asked sharper questions as a result.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, a Republican and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, kicked things off with a detailed look at just how weird Russia’s influence campaign on Facebook was. Five times as many ads were targeted at Maryland, a Democratic stronghold, than at Wisconsin, a battleground state that proved decisive to Donald Trump’s election win. Of the ads that ran in Wisconsin, 35 of 55 ran before the Wisconsin primary — which is to say, before Trump was the Republican nominee. And by last year, Russia actually decreased the number of geo-targeted ads that it ran on Facebook than it did the year before.
I found myself nodding along when Burr said: “This is an incredibly complex story.”
Over the next several hours and in two separate hearings, senators and their counterparts illustrated just how complex the story is. Some key threads and questions that emerged:
How many bots are on Twitter? The company says it’s 5 percent of active accounts. Multiple senators, including Burr, said they don’t believe them. They asked Twitter to explain why researchers believe the figure is closer to 10 percent.
Is Facebook accelerating divisions in American society? Rep. Adam Schiff asked the question in the House Intelligence Committee Hearing. Colin Stretch, top lawyer for Facebook, says “the data on that is actually quite mixed.” I’d love to see it!
Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, threatened to regulate tech companies: “You bear the responsibility, you created these platforms, and now they’re being misused — and you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.” Strong words that got a lot of traction when I tweeted them. But as a Democrat, Feinstein isn’t in control here. Also, please stop tweeting your opinions about Dianne Feinstein at me.  I’m begging you.
Lawmakers are mad the CEOs didn’t show up to testify. (But not that mad, honestly.)
Did Russia target voters using ill-gotten registered voter data? Sharp question from Sen. Marco Rubio; the tech company lawyers said they had “no evidence” this occurred. (Of course, they previously said they had “no evidence” of Russian political ads.)
Tony Romm, my colleague at Recode, offered his own questions after today’s hearing. I’ll highlight two big ones. 
Is there any tie to Trump? It’s arguably the most significant question looming over lawmakers’ three hearings, and it’s one they didn’t — or, perhaps, couldn’t — discuss. It was only on Monday, remember, that Robert Mueller, the U.S. government’s special counsel, secured his first indictment in the wide-ranging investigation into potential Russian collusion. But it doesn’t directly implicate the president. And there was no evidence aired this week that tied any of those threads together.
Were Russian efforts on Facebook even worse than reported? For Sen. Mark Warner, a lingering issue is whether the social giant has conducted a truly exhaustive search of the stories, posts, ads and other content on its platform. He raised it repeatedly during the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Wednesday morning.
Recall that Facebook initially identified about 470 profiles and pages tied to the Internet Research Agency, a Russia government-sponsored troll farm. The so-called IRA was responsible for getting content into perhaps as many as 126 million Americans’ feeds. But Warner said he’s as uncertain as ever if Facebook is looking hard enough for other instances of Russian disinformation outside the context of the IRA. Like every company testifying this week, though, Facebook said its internal investigation is ongoing. None of them could say they are convinced they’ve found anything.
Then, of course, is the biggest question of all — what impact did Russian meddling have on the 2016 election? In the narrow sense, a satisfying answer appears to be almost completely out of reach. 
In a broader sense, though, we know exactly what impact Russian meddling had: it created what well be the biggest public-relations crisis Facebook has ever faced, and reset the tech industry’s relationships with the US government and with its users. And the efforts a foreign government made to sow division in the United States appears to have been largely successful.
And now for some links:

Opening remarks of Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC (PDF)
Live updates: Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before Congress again
House Intelligence Committee Releases Incendiary Russian Social Media Ads
120K Instagrams by Russian election attackers hit 20M Americans
Here are the Russia-linked Facebook ads released by Congress
These are some of the tweets and Facebook ads Russia used to try and influence the 2016 presidential election
Here are the Russia-linked Facebook ads released by Congress
Thousands Of New Yorkers Took To The Streets In Anti-Trump March Promoted By Russia-Linked Account
Russian trolls don't use the same accounts for multiple elections
Russia’s social media meddling could spell the end of online anonymity
The Cost of Facebook’s Political Baggage
Senators Take to Facebook to Criticize Facebook's Russian Ads
Twitter Offered Russian TV Network 15% Of Its Total Share Of US Elections Advertising
Facebook’s business is booming, but preventing abuse will cut profits
Facebook raises duplicate and fake account estimates in Q3 earnings
Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status hit 300M users, nearly 2X Snapchat
Is This Fake News Russian Or Not?
Tech Goes to Washington
What about Fox News?
The Big Tech Companies Can’t Stop The Bleeding In Washington
It’s Time to Bust the Online Trusts
How to Fix Facebook? We Asked 9 Experts
And finally ...
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Tips? Want to submit testimony for the congressional record?
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