WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on Tuesday, Colin Stretch, General Counsel for Facebook, testified that Russian interference before and after the election accounted for a small 0.004 percent of all news feed traffic, with an emphasis on being negative toward Hillary Clinton.
Sean Edgett, Acting General Counsel for Twitter, and Richard Salgado, Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security for Google agreed that the Russian interference during the 2016 election cycle constituted a relatively small percentage of all content on their social media website, adding that accounts identified as being Russian controlled were terminated as quickly as they were identified.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, addressed the issue, pressing Google that academic research suggests Google’s search engine has a left-leaning bias that goes so far as to block stories broken by conservative and libertarian websites until the same story is picked up by a mainstream media outlet.
Sen. Cruz asked each company, “Do you consider your websites to be neutral public forums. While each company professed to be open to all types of ideas, Sen. Cruz noted he was not satisfied Facebook, Google, and Twitter were not “placing your thumb” on content so as to reflect the political preferences of their employees.
Among the highlights of the hearing, under questioning from Sen. John Kennedy, R-LA, Stretch admitted there was no way Facebook could “see behind” every one of the approximately 5 million accounts that advertise on Facebook daily.
Pressed by Sen. Kennedy, Google’s Richard Salgado denied the company a media platform, claiming Google was a technology platform.
In their prepared testimony, each of the three social media companies attempted to estimate the extent of Russian interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle.
Facebook reported that the disinformation campaign associated with the Internet Research Agency, IRA, a Russian company located in St. Petersburg, spent approximately $100,000 on more than 3,000 Facebook and Instragram ads between June 2015 and August 2017.
Facebook’s analysis also showed that the IRA accounts used ads to promote roughly 120 Facebook Pages they had set up, which in turn posted more than 80,000 pieces of content between January 2015 and August 2017.
Facebook estimated 11.4 million people in the United State saw at least one of these ads between 2015 and 2017.
Twitter identified 36,746 accounts that generated automated, election-related content and had at least one of the characteristics we used to associate an account with Russia.
During the relevant period, those accounts generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related Tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions.
Twitter placed those numbers in context as follows:
- The 36,746 automated accounts that we identified as Russian-linked and tweeting election-related content represent approximately one one-hundredth of a percent (0.012%) of the total accounts on Twitter at the time.
- The 1.4 million election-related Tweets that we identified through our retrospective review as generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts constituted less than three-quarters of a percent (0.74%) of the overall election-related Tweets on Twitter at the time.
- Those 1.4 million Tweets received only one-third of a percent (0.33%) of impressions on election-related Tweets. In the aggregate, automated, Russian-linked, election-related Tweets consistently underperformed in terms of impressions relative to their volume on the platform.
Twitter estimated that fewer than 5 percent of all 360 million accounts active during the election period were identified with a foreign nation-state actor.
Google attempted to distinguish itself from the other two websites, arguing that its search engine does not lead to the same viral content activity that distinguishes Facebook and Twitter.
Google reported finding only two accounts during the election cycle that appeared to be engaged in an activity associated with known or suspected government-backed entities. These two accounts spent approximately $4,700 in connection with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Google also reported finding 18 channels on YouTube with approximately 1,100 videos that were uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this effort and that contained political content.
These videos mostly had low view counts, with just 3 percent having more than 5,000 views, constituting only forty-three hours of YouTube content. While this is a relatively small amount of content in that people watch over a billion hours of YouTube content a day, with 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute.