It was microblogging platform Twitter’s turn on Thursday to tell congressional investigators it had been used by Russian sources to spread misinformation to influence the 2016 presidential campaign. And as before, lawmakers were not convinced the social media site was capable to fight off future attempts.
After Facebook owning up earlier this month to carrying 3,000 ads from 470 accounts run from a Russian “troll farm” linked to Kremlin, Twitter on Thursday acknowledged detecting 22 of those accounts active on its own platform, with links to 179 more; in all 201, which have since been shut down.
Twitter made a closed-door presentation to congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and in a blog tried to allay concerns raised by its admission, saying “we continue to investigate these issues, and will take action on anything that violates our” terms of service.
But Mark Warner, ranking member of the US Senate intelligence committee whose staff had met Twitter officials earlier in the day, was unconvinced the microblogging site was up to the task. “The presentation that the Twitter team made to the Senate Intel staff today was deeply disappointing,” he said.
“The notion that their work was basically derivative, based upon accounts that Facebook had identified, showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again, begs many more questions.”
Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House intelligence committee, which also met Twitter officials, was equally unimpressed by Twitter’s presentation. He said in a statement that Twitter’s catch came from analysis done by Facebook. It was clear, he said, Twitter had “significant forensic work to do on its own”.
Representatives of tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google, facing increased scrutiny for their inability to detect Russian ads and attempts to distribute misinformation with the view to influencing the election outcome, are scheduled to testify later in the month in a public hearing.
Facebook told congressional investigators earlier in the month it had sold around $100,000 worth of ads to 470 accounts run out of a Russian company known to have worked with the government. These ads began appearing in 2015 and were aimed directly at Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Ads saying Muslims supported Clinton were placed in parts of the United States known to be suspicious of Muslims; and some supporting Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement, appeared in some black-dominated areas, whereas other ads warned Americans about such groups.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had first dismissed reports that his site could have been used to influence the election — through fake news. And had called it a “crazy idea”. In a post on Wednesday, he said he regretted being dismissive about it. “This is too important an issue to be dismissive,” he wrote.
Fake news played a significant role in the last presidential election. A Washington DC pizzeria became a target of online ire flagged in fake news as a base of an alleged child abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton. A man armed with an assault rifle showed up outside one day to rescue the children.
That story had been circulated around on social media websites for weeks, and despite being debunked by fact-checkers and shown as fake by most news publications, it received a retweet even from the son of Michael Flynn, an aide of Donald Trump who was appointed and later fired as national security adviser.