Twitter CEO Tells Senate He'll Do More to Alerts Users Subjected to 'Any Falsehoods or Any Manipulation'

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, arrive to testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Sept. 5, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON — Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that the social media giant was “too slow to spot” Russia’s comprehensive disinformation campaign in the last election cycle and was “too slow to act.”

“That is on us. This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love,” Sandberg said. “Actions taken show how determined we are to do everything we can do to stop this from happening.”

She said Facebook has increased artificial intelligence ability to spot “inauthentic activity” and doubled its safety and security staff to more than 20,000 people “and we are able to view reports in 50 languages, 24 hours a day.”

“We’re making progress on fake news, we’re getting rid of the economic incentives to create it and we’re limiting the distribution it gets on Facebook,” Sandberg added. “We demote articles rated by third-party fact checkers as false, we warn people who have shared them or who are about to share them and we show them related articles to give them more facts.”

“We’ve also taken strong steps to prevent abuse and increase transparency and advertising. Today on Facebook, you can go to any page and see all the ads that page is running, even if they wouldn’t be shown to you. For political and issue ads, you can also see who paid for the ads, how much was spent and the demographics of the people who saw them. We’re also going to require people running large pages with large audiences in the United States to go through an authorization process and confirm their identity. These steps won’t stop everyone who’s trying to game the system, but they will make it a lot harder.”

Sandberg vowed that, even with limited intelligence ability as the company can’t access what government agencies see, “we’re getting better at finding and stopping our opponents, from financially motivated troll farms to sophisticated military intelligence operations.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told the panel that the microblogging site is like a “digital public square,” and “in any public space you will find inspired ideas and you’ll find lies and deception.”

“We aren’t proud of how that free and open exchange has been weaponized and used to distract and divide people and our nation. We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems that we have acknowledged; abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, misinformation campaigns, and divisive filter bubbles. That’s not a healthy public square,” he said. “Worse, a relatively small number of bad faith actors were able to game Twitter have an outsized impact.”

“Our interests are aligned with the American people and this committee. If we don’t find scalable solutions to the problems we’re now seeing, we lose our business and we continue to threaten the original privilege and liberty we were given to create Twitter in the first place,” Dorsey continued. “We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago. We acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it. We can’t do this alone and that’s why this conversation is important and why I am here.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked if the companies were addressing “micro targeting to discourage voting,” what he called “one of the most powerful tools in the propaganda arsenal” that has “certainly been used in the past with the Russians to discourage minority Americans from voting.”

“Senator, we feel very strongly about this. There is a long history in this country of trying to suppress civil rights and voting rights and that activity has no place on Facebook. Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook,” Sandberg replied.

“So what are you doing to prohibit this micro targeting?” Wyden said. “I mean, what about ads that share false information about the date of the election or the location of a polling place or ads that tell people they can vote with a text message from their phone.”

“So with everything when we’re looking for abuse of our systems and things that are against our policies, we have a combination of people reviewing ads and we have a combination of automated systems and machine learning that help us find things and take them down quickly,” Sandberg said.

Dorsey said Twitter has evidence that cyber units from Russia and Iran “have utilized our systems and gamed our systems to amplify information.”

“Once you have taken down accounts that are linked to Russia, these impostor accounts, what do you do to notify the followers of those accounts that they have been following or engaged in accounts that originated in Russia, and are not what they appear to be?” asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

“We simply haven’t done enough,” Dorsey replied.

“We didn’t have enough communication going out in terms of what was seen and what was tweeted, and what people are falling in to,” the Twitter boss elaborated. “…We need to meet people where they are, and if we determine that people are subject to any falsehoods or any manipulation of any sort, we do need to provide them the full context of that. And this is an area of improvement for us and something that we’re going to be diligent to fix.”

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) noted that the committee’s investigation into Russian campaign interference is still ongoing, and said that when their probe began neither he nor Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) “fully appreciated how easily foreign actors could use social media to manipulate how Americans form their views.”

“The Russians undertook a structured influence campaign not against the American government but against the American people. Moscow saw the issues that talking heads yell about on cable news — race, religion, immigration, and sexual orientation, and they used those to sow discord and to foment chaos. They leveraged our social media to undermine our political system as well,” Burr said. “But make no mistake, Russia neither leans left nor right, it simply seeks turmoil; a weak America is good for Russia.”

Now, the chairman added, “other states are now using the Russian playbook, as evidenced by the recently uncovered Iranian influence operations; we’re at a critical inflection point.”