Senator Blasts Facebook As Lawyer Admits Russia Reached Nearly 150M Users

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Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch’s week did not improve on Wednesday.

Fresh off a hiding Tuesday from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), Stretch appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) read the social media executive the riot act for what he called a refusal to take the problem of foreign interference in elections seriously.

“In meetings with your leadership as you became more aware of this problem, you aggressively promoted the fact that you took down 30,000 accounts around the French elections,” Warner told Stretch. “Now you say not all of those were Russian related. Have you gone back and cross checked those accounts you took down in France to see if they were active in the American election?”

Stretch tried to give a discursive answer, but Warner cut him off. “The accounts related to Russian accounts that you took down, your leadership bragged about how proactive you were in the French election process,” Warner said, “did you check those accounts to see if any of them were active in the American elections?” 

Stretch tried for a second non-answer, which appeared to anger Warner. Just please answer my question,” he said. “Have you reviewed the accounts you took down in France that were Russian related to see if they played any role in the American election?”

Stretch said he was “trying to answer the question.”

“The answer is yes or no,” snapped Warner. Facebook, he said, had looked at the 470 American accounts identified for payment in rubles. Had it applied the same techniques to the accounts seeking to interfere in the European elections “to see if those accounts were active in the United States?”

“I will have to come back to you on that, senator,” Stretch said.

Warner was irate. “Sir, we had this hearing scheduled for months,” he said. “I find your answer very disappointing. On the question of we just discovered you had 80,000 views in terms of Russian views on Facebook. We discover in the last 48 hours 120,000 Russian-based posts on Instagram. Have you done any similar analysis on those 120,000 posts? Know the 80,000 reached 126 million Americans. Have you done the same analysis on the 120,000 posts on Instagram?”

Stretch answered that Facebook had indeed analyzed those posts.

“How many Americans did those touch?” Warner asked.

Far more than Facebook had initially admitted, it turned out. “The data on Instagram is not as complete, but the data we have indicates that beginning in October of 2016, those Instagram posts reached an additional 16 million people in addition to the 126 million people that we identify,” Stretch said.

“Now we’re seeing the Russian activity is roughly at 150 million Americans without knowing how many times they were reshared,” Warner said.

Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer, quickly issued a comment, which also did not answer the question of whether the accounts run in Germany and France were active in the American election. Stamos did say that “[a]ll of the accounts disabled automatically [in the sweep of European disinfo accounts] are still included in our searches for organized disinformation actors like the Internet Research Agency.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.
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