WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned an official from Facebook on election meddling at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing entitled, “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working with Tech to Find Solutions.”
“This is an ad that was run on Facebook in May of 2016 - a key moment in the primary campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, when both were closing in on the nomination,” said Senator Coons. “A group that claimed to be 'Heart of Texas,' but was in fact paid for by Russians in Rubles used this ad to target Americans based on their professed characteristics like an interest in patriotism or supporting veterans. The ad claims that Hillary Clinton is ‘only one politician except Barack Obama who is despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans.’ And, it says if Clinton were elected president, the ‘army should be withdrawn from her control according to amendments to the Constitution.’ This ad is nothing short of the Russian government directly interfering in our elections, lying to American citizens, duping folks who believe they are joining and supporting a group that is about veterans and based in Texas, when in fact it's paid for in Rubles by Russians. Should Facebook be allowed to be a platform that foreign adversaries can use to run political ads?”
Full audio and video available here.
Senator Coons’ Q&A, as delivered, is below:
Senator Coons: Thank you, Chairman Graham and Ranking Member Whitehouse, and I'd like to thank our three witnesses for joining us today. I think what you've presented today is truly troubling evidence of the scope and reach of Russia's interference in our last election and the ways in which Americans who typically expect to know when they're consuming a political advertisement were mislead and what are very troubling slow, halting steps by your otherwise compelling and innovative companies to come forward and to work with us and to help us understand the scope and consequence of this. Mr. Stretch, let me start, if I could, with a political ad from Facebook. This is an ad that was run on Facebook in May of 2016 - a key moment in the primary campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, when both were closing in on the nomination. A group that claimed to be 'Heart of Texas,' but was in fact paid for by Russians in Rubles who used this ad to target Americans based on their professed characteristics like an interest in patriotism or supporting veterans. The ad claims that Hillary Clinton is "only one politician except Barack Obama who is despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans." And, it says if Clinton were elected president, the "army should be withdrawn from her control according to amendments to the Constitution." This ad is nothing short of the Russian government directly interfering in our elections, lying to American citizens, duping folks who believe they are joining and supporting a group that is about veterans and based in Texas, when in fact it's paid for in Rubles by Russians. Should Facebook be allowed to be a platform that foreign adversaries can use to run political ads?
Mr. Stretch, General Counsel, Facebook: Senator, that advertisement has no place on Facebook and we are committed to preventing that sort of behavior from occurring again on our platform - it's something that we take incredibly seriously. I think you are right to surface it, it's upsetting, it makes me angry, and it makes everyone who works at the company angry. When I said we are doubling our teams from 10,000 to 20,000 in order to address safety and security on Facebook, that's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about.
Senator Coons: Mr. Stretch, thank you for that answer. Let me show you another example - there's been a lot of attention on ads, but I think we also ought to focus on events. Russians also used Facebook to make up and promote political events. A group called 'Being Patriotic' - see upper left - shared their event, a ‘Miners for Trump’ rally to users in Pennsylvania. But, this political event was in fact a fraud, organized, funded, and supported by Russians - Russians trying to influence our election duped Americans in Pennsylvania into coming to an event that was nothing but a fake. Help me understand, if I might, Mr. Stretch, you've said that these things are vile, upsetting, and cynical, and that you take responsibility for changing. Yet, I'm concerned that we are now nearly a year after the election; ten months after the election, September 6, Facebook acknowledged $100,000 worth of ads were bought by a Russian company linked to the Kremlin, amounting to about 3,000 ads. But, if I understand your testimony here today, it's that 80,000 posts by the Russian-linked Internet research agency were seen by 29 million Americans and may have reached an estimated 126 million people. Why has it taken Facebook 11 months to come forward and help us understand the scope of this problem, see it clearly for the problem it is, and begin to work in a responsible and legislative way to address it when former President Obama cautioned your CEO literally nine days after the election last November that this was a big problem and Facebook needed to come forward?
Mr. Stretch: Thank you, senator, I appreciate your question, one clarification when President Obama and Mr. Zuckerberg met and spoke, they were speaking about fake news generally, there was no discussion about foreign interference. But, I think your larger point around our efforts to investigate and understand what we now see as a sophisticated and systemic effort to interfere in the election is one I do want to address. We actually published a white paper in April of 2017 that detailed our findings to that point. When the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued its assessment in January, we weren't sitting around, our threat intelligence team, which I mentioned earlier, had been looking at what we could learn from the 2016 election, and on the basis of that assessment, which we saw in January, started looking hard at the question of disinformation on Facebook and identified a number of practices that we thought would be helpful for the industry to be aware of and for the public to be aware of, so we publicly issued that white paper in April. Now, as you roll the clock forward and we continued our investigation, we did further analysis and we did then discover the ads associated with the Internet research agency, and, at that moment, we brought those advertisements and our learnings to Congress. We issued a public blog post telling the public what we had found. And, we committed to continuing our investigation and continuing to commit to share what we learned with Congress, and I'd like to make one additional point if I may, on that content that you exhibited, what to me is so interesting about that is it reflects the sophistication in my view about what we're dealing with. So, this is not just an online attack. This is an online attack that affects multiple companies, multiple platforms, and it's also paired to offline activity. This is a national security issue, and it's one we are taking very seriously, I know my colleagues here are taking very seriously, and we need to work together to make sure we understand the scope of the threat and we need to continue to work with law enforcement to make sure we're sharing information and expertise to really address this thoroughly.
Senator Coons: I appreciate your response to my questions and I'm grateful to Senators Graham and Whitehouse for today's hearing, to Senator Klobuchar for her leadership in putting forward legislation to try and tackle the significant challenge, but gentlemen, I wish we had the executives of your three companies before us today, and I look to forward hearing in more concrete ways the steps your organizations are taking to address these very real threats to our democracy. Thank you.