Russia is accused of sowing discord among American citizens by using different social media platforms. According to The New York Times, Russian agents posted thousands of inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded 1,000 plus videos on YouTube.
The social media companies sent detailed disclosures to Congress on Monday. A series of Congressional hearings this week are scheduled on how third parties have used several social media platforms to sway the 2016 US presidential elections.
The companies had already revealed in the past how Russian operatives had spent hundreds and thousands of dollars to spread disinformation among Americans. But the new information underlines the breadth of the Kremlin’s efforts to lever open divisions in the USA, using American social media stages. Several investigations of Russian involvement had been held in the first 10 months of the Trump presidency, followed by the latest one, that leads to the indictment of former Trump campaign chief, Paul Manafort on Monday.
Previously, Facebook said that it had identified more than $100,000 spent on 3,000 Russian-backed advertisements by the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin.
In its detailed remarks sent to the Congress on Monday, Facebook revealed that the Internet Research Agency had posted about 80,000 fragments of divisive content in two years i.e. between January 2015 and August 2017. And these posts were shown to about 29 million users, who then shared it with others, spreading it further to tens of millions of people. The American social media giant claimed that it had found and deleted more than 170 Instagram accounts that posted 120,000 Russia-linked pictures.
Colin Stretch, the general counsel for Facebook, who will be appearing in the Congressional hearings, said that the Russian-backed posts were “an insidious attempt to drive people apart”. He called the posts “deeply disturbing” focused on sensitive issues like race, religion, gun rights and transgender.
He assured that Facebook was “determined to prevent it from happening again.”
Facebook further said that its security team – multiple times before the election – noticed threats targeted at members of major political parties from a group called APT28. The US law enforcement officials have linked APT28 to Russian military intelligence operations in the past.
According to Facebook, American citizens, between 2015 and 2017 saw more than 11 trillion posts from different Facebook pages but the number of Russian-linked posts was very small as compared to the other random posts that were more than billion in number.
Twitter also prepared a detailed statement to present before the Congress. It said that it suspended more than 2,700 accounts between September 2016 and November 2016 that were linked to the Internet Research Agency. Such accounts posted around 131,000 tweets in that particular time period.
Other than the accounts related to the Internet Search Agency, Twitter also discovered 36,000 separate Russian-funded accounts that posted about 1.4 million election-related tweets in a three month period. Twitter further noted that 288 million people viewed these tweets and as a whole, the tweets represented less than three-quarters of one percent of all election-related posts over that period.
Google, in its prepared remarks, said that numerous YouTube channels were created by the Internet Research Agency, posting videos highlighting social issues like law enforcement, race or Syria. The Internet Research Agency also bought ads on other Google services. The internet search giant confirmed earlier reports, claiming that the agency had spent $4,700 on political ads.
Google claimed that it discovered 18 more YouTube channels, posting political videos. The channels were “likely associated” with Russian agents and uploaded more than 1,100 videos from 2015 to the summer of 2017, the company said. Google noted that the videos had relatively very low views. Only three percent of the videos had more than 5,000 views. There was no evidence found that proved the content was targeted at American viewers.
“While we found only limited activity on our services, we will continue to work to prevent all of it, because no amount of interference is acceptable,” wrote Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, and Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel.
Both the men will appear on separate Congressional committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The three tech giants, Facebook, Google and Twitter are shaken by the way their technologies had been used by Russian operatives. The companies had always presented themselves as a source of connection and positivity among people. Russian agents have used their sites exactly how they were meant to be used, but for malicious desires.
Facebook is the most affected site among all, with the most number of malevolent posts, reaching 126 million users. Facebook executives are worried about how these posts from foreign entities could start a thread and how the social network could be potentially used against different groups in future.
Although the Russian agents used the site with divisive intentions, they did not violate any rules provided by Facebook. So, Facebook is now focusing on the issue of authenticity instead.
“Many of these ads did not violate our content policies. That means that for most of them if they had been run by authentic individuals, anywhere, they could have remained on the platform,” wrote Elliot Schrage, vice president of policy and communications at Facebook, in a company blog post earlier this month.
Senator Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner – earlier this month – introduced a bipartisan bill that requires internet companies to identify those who paid for political ads, using their social platform.
The companies are taking major steps in accordance with the bill. Facebook rolled out a new feature this week that provides insight of who is paying for ads and it will maintain a publicly viewable database of the purchased ads. The company claimed that it is working with Google, Twitter and other companies to identify such threats and will continue to coordinate with law enforcement when appropriate. Facebook also said that it has shut down 5.8 million fake accounts in October 2016 and removed 30,000 accounts that were influencing the French elections.
Google and Twitter are also working on their ad policies. Google plans to create a publicly accessible database of what political ads run on its services. However, Google refused to take any action against Russian news channel RT, as the channel has built a huge audience on YouTube. Although the American Intelligence community has accused RT as the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet”, Google said it will keep the channel because the organization had not violated any of its policies.
Last week Twitter announced that it will ban the Russian news organizations, RT and Sputnik from advertising.