Members of Congress Ask Facebook to Notify Users Exposed to Russian Propaganda–Ball Is Now in Zuckerberg’s Court

“I’m sure as you began your business and they grew, it was the idea of bringing people together and not tearing people apart, as I’m sure the Wright Brothers never intended the airplane be used as a weapon of mass destruction,” remarked Brad Wenstrup, R-OH, to the lawyers for three of the country’s most powerful technology companies. In back to back hearings of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the top lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter were grilled on the role the technology platforms play in advancing Russian propaganda and what they are doing to address the problem ahead of future elections.

In both the Senate and the House inquiries, Congressional representatives asked Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch if the company would directly notify individual users exposed to Russian propaganda through its platform, an idea advanced in two recent articles on Just Security (here and here). The first exchange took place during the Senate hearing:

Sen. Jack Reed: When you discovered a deceptive foreign government presentation on your platform, my presumption from what you’ve said today is that you will stop it and take it down, do you feel an obligation in turn to notify those people who have accessed that, and can you do that and shouldn’t you do that?

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch: Senator we feel an obligation as you say first to stop the activity, second to investigate it further, to fan out essentially from the account to make sure we’re taking an expansive view of the investigation to try to capture any related activity, third to share threat information with the industry and with the government so that we can all do a better job and fourth to bring the issue to the attention of in this case this committee and the content itself we’ve said we’re supportive of this committee making it publicly available. The question of reaching out to individuals who may have seen it is a much more difficult and complex one but we believe our commitment to transparency on this issue generally should address that.

Senator Reed: Well technically you could do that I presume or you could invest the resources to do it and as a result, frankly, reporting to us about the nefarious activities of Russia is not going to immediately translate to the thousands or apparently 126 million people who saw the message and thought it was legit. You have I presume the technical skill to do that… is that… and again apropos Senator Cornyn, you know you’ll see in the newspaper we correct the statement we made the other day, it was wrong, or it was deliberately wrong, and I think you, given the first amendment, you can live with that, I hope.

Colin Stretch: I’m… I’m sorry Senator, could you repeat the question.

Sen. Reed: Well the question goes back to having an obligation under the first amendment to notify people who you know who have been deliberately misled by a foreign government, not just us, not just law enforcement.

Colin Stretch: The technical challenges associated with that undertaking are substantial particularly because much of the data work underneath our estimate of the number of people who may have been exposed to this relies on data analysis and modeling; that said we do believe transparency in this area is important and we are supportive of making as much of this information available to the public as this committee deems warranted.

Senator Reed: I deem it warranted, for what that’s worth.

In the House hearing, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL, asked whether Facebook would inform users exposed to hoax events.

Representative Sewell: I know that when there were — when you did your investigation and you found out there was a link back to Russia, you took down the page, Mr. Stretch. Is there not an obligation also to notify, so for example, on the rally example that I showed before. There were thousands of folks that responded to that. Do you not also have an obligation to let those folks know that that was a hoax? That — or at least inform them who was behind that sponsored advertisement now that you know that it’s misleading and.

Colin Stretch: Thank you, Congresswoman. We have tried to notify people about the issue broadly through information on our website, through our white paper last April, through our hard questions blogs, and in working with the committee, we’re open to all of this information being released publicly. It’s a much more challenging issue to identify and notify reliably people who may have been exposed to this content on an individualized basis.

Representative Sewell: Now, I know that you — but you do know exactly the followers of these pages, right? I mean, that’s within your rubric, that’s information that you collect, so I’m not asking you about the multiplier effect? I’m talking about direct discernible followers and people who were — who liked those pages.

Colin Stretch: I understand the concern that the — the challenge is that much of the data is old and much of the data about followers that we’ve been able to provide is the result of — of estimates and modeling, so doing that reliably presents some significant technical challenges, which we can discuss further.

Later, the Ranking Member of the Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) asked the question twice, first to all three company representatives:

Representative Adam Schiff: So what is the social responsibility here, is one question. And the related question is do you feel an obligation to those who were influenced by this Russian media that you can identify, to give them notice that they were the subject of Russian-sponsored ad — covert advertising and propaganda? Because they may also be future targets of it, as they’ve been identified by their clicking on pages or following pages. In the same way that credit agencies have a obligation to notify their customers when their identity has been compromised, do you feel an obligation to notify your users that they have been the subject of Russian propaganda?

In this case Mike Conaway, R-TX, allowed the companies to include a written response at a later date. Schiff also returned to the question a few minutes later in an exchange with Colin Stretch:

Representative Schiff: And do you feel an obligation to notify users that have been exposed to this, that they may be further victim of it because their I.P. addresses have been captured?

Colin Stretch: We’ve — we’ve tried to provide notification, broadly, about the issue through our public blogs and we have a hard questions blog on our website that addresses a lot of this. And we’re committed to working with the committee to publicize all of the content that we’ve seen. The question of individual notice is much, much more challenging and we’d be happy to talk to you further about some of those challenges.

Now, the question is for Facebook to answer: will it engage in an act of radical transparency and notify its users?

Facebook’s failure to come to grips with the problem starts at the top. While Mark Zuckerberg has made progress since flatly rejecting the idea that propaganda on the platform had any influence on the 2016 election, he still refuses to personally own up to the problem. A leader who takes responsibility would not send his lawyer to testify at this historical juncture. This fact was not lost on Congress. “Respect us or not, like us or not, we’re the elected leaders of this country, and the leaders of the social media platforms should be here today too,” said Mike Quigley, D-IL, during the House testimony.

For all the lawyerly claims that “we take this issue seriously” in several hours of testimony, the company was unable to answer key questions. In one notable exchange with Senator Mark Warner, the Senator grew visibly frustrated with Stretch’s lack of preparedness to answer certain questions. It remains to be seen whether the company is willing to truly get to the bottom of the problem, or whether it really has a handle on exactly what the problem is. General Counsel Stretch used various terms to describe Facebook’s provisional analysis, referring to “technical signals” and “modelling” of the problem, suggesting in many cases the company has yet to truly parse through all of the individual accounts and pages in a thorough way.

Meanwhile, every disclosure suggests the company is struggling to come to grips with the scale of the issue. The number of Americans Facebook admits were exposed to Russian propaganda on its platforms rose again today by another 20 million to include Instagram posts, for now resting at 146 million in total.

Facebook is at a crossroads with its users. Conspicuously absent in the hearings on Tuesday was a legal argument on the part of the General Counsel which the company has raised before to claim that federal law prevents disclosing the Russian content to the public. Some of the top lawyers in the field recently debunked that assertion. The technical problems the lawyers cited seem to boil down to the idea that they could not reach every last soul. But that would not be a reason to fail to notify the other millions of people. So now what’s truly stopping Facebook from respecting the rights of its users and serving the broader public interest?

 

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Justin Hendrix

Executive Director of NYC Media Lab Follow him on Twitter (@justinhendrix). Opinions expressed here are entirely his own.