WASHINGTON – A lawyer representing Twitter told Congress today that failing to identify a prolific Russian troll account claiming to be run by Tennessee Republicans for nearly a year during campaign season “was an absolute miss.”
“We’ve gotten better since,” Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee while appearing with lawyers from Facebook and Google. “We’ve refined our policies around impersonation and parody.”
According to BuzzFeed News, the @TEN_GOP Twitter account gained nearly 140,000 followers between November 2015 and August 2016, when Twitter suspended the account. The real Tennessee Republican Party’s Twitter account has about 13,500 followers. According to BuzzFeed, the troll account tapped into a number of hot-button, viral issues by tweeting ridiculous messages, including one in December 2016 arguing that unarmed black men deserve to die at the hands of police officers.
Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) noted during the hearing that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and the president’s son Donald Trump, Jr. retweeted messages from the troll account.
“Candidly, your companies know more about Americans than the United States government does, and the idea that you had no idea that any of this was happening strains credibility,” Warner told the panel of social media lawyers.
Edgett claimed that Twitter suspects that about 5 percent of its accounts are false or spam, but Warner pointed out that independent assessments show that the number could be closer to 12 percent or 15 percent. With 320 million active Twitter accounts, he explained, that could mean some 30 million or more fake accounts.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) questioned Facebook vice president and general counsel Colin Stretch about the Heart of Texas, another Russian troll group that orchestrated a number of anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton events across Texas leading up to the 2016 election. The group had earned as many as 225,000 followers, and the rallies drew anti-Islamic protesters and a handful of people with #WhiteLivesMatter banners. The group’s rallies also drew nonviolent confrontations with counter-protesters.
According to Burr, establishing the group by paying for Facebook ads cost the Russians about $200.
“What neither side could have known is that Russia trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create real division between Americans,” Burr said, noting that there were no Heart of Texas representatives at the events. “It’s hard to attend an event in Houston, Texas, when you’re trolling from a site in St. Petersburg, Russia.”
Facebook has submitted more than 3,000 Russian-linked advertisements to the House and Senate intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee, which are probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“It pains us as a company, it pains me personally to see that our platform was abused in this way,” Stretch said. “People in this country care deeply about issues of public concern, and it’s one of the strengths of our country that people are so willing to speak freely about them. The fact that foreign actors were able to use our platform to exploit that openness is a deeply painful lesson for us and one we’re focused on learning from going forward.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the social media companies “don’t get it,” calling the recent events the “beginning of cyber warfare.”
“What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with a sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country,” she said. “You have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.”