Executives from Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Alphabet’s Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) made an appearance on Capitol Hill to publicly discuss their role in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. The company executives say they were used as tools for a broad Russian misinformation campaign. The companies waited nearly a year to publicly admit how many Americans were exposed to the Russian effort to spread propaganda.
This week, the companies admitted that the abuse of their platforms was much greater than previously acknowledged. Facebook acknowledged that more than 126 million users potentially saw political ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency. Google said that Internet Research Agency agents uploaded more than 1,000 videos on its YouTube platform. Twitter said it found more than 131,000 messages published by the agency on Twitter.
Frustrated lawmakers are seeking stronger reassurances that American elections will be protected from foreign powers. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, the chairman of the crime and terrorism subcommittee that held the hearing, said, “It’s Russia today; it could be Iran and North Korea tomorrow.”
American intelligence agencies have concluded that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia tried to sway the election in favor of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Graham said during the hearing, “During the election, they were trying to create discord between Americans, most of it directed against Clinton.” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg dismissed allegations of foreign interference on the site as a “crazy idea” shortly after the election.
Senators are now pushing for regulations on their advertising practices like the rules for political advertising on television. Mr. Graham said, “What we need to do is sit down and find ways to bring some of the controls we have on over-the-air broadcast to social media to protect the consumer.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, said passing legislation on the matter is essential before the midterm elections in 2018. Ms. Klobuchar has introduced the bill with Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona to require the companies to create reports on who funds political ads online, similar to rules for broadcast television.
The biggest problem for the companies is that they have enormous automated advertising businesses that are unable to easily spot ads purchased by foreign governments. Each company has millions advertisers that can change from month to month. Facebook now says it will make the funding behind political ads public information. The company has also promised to hire more than 1,000 people to manually review political ad purchases.