Facebook, Twitter, and Google Summoned to Congressional Panel on Russian Election Interference

Hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.

Representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google have been asked to appear on Nov. 1 at hearings on alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics called by the U.S. Senate and House Intelligence Committees, officials said.

Facebook and Twitter have already agreed to send representatives to the Senate committee hearing, a Congressional official said.

An official knowledgeable about House committee plans declined to disclosed whether the companies have agreed to send representatives to its hearing.

Sources said that Google had not yet notified the committees that it would send representatives to the hearings, though ultimately the company was likely to do so.

Tech

Facebook says 10 million U.S. users saw Russia-linked ads

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Some 10 million people in the United States saw politically divisive ads on Facebook that the company said were purchased in Russia in the months before and after last year’s U.S. presidential election, Facebook said on Monday.

Facebook, which had not previously given such an estimate, said in a statement that it used modeling to estimate how many people saw at least one of the 3,000 ads. It also said that 44 percent of the ads were seen before the November 2016 election and 56 percent were seen afterward.

The ads have sparked anger toward Facebook and, within the United States, toward Russia since the world’s largest social network disclosed their existence last month. Moscow has denied involvement with the ads.

Facebook has faced calls for increased U.S. regulation from U.S. authorities. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has outlined steps that the company plans to take to deter governments from abusing the social media network.

Earlier on Monday, Facebook said in a separate statement that it planned to hire 1,000 more people to review ads and ensure they meet its terms, as part of an effort to deter Russia and other countries from using the platform to interfere in elections.

The latest company statement said that about 25 percent of the ads were never shown to anyone.

“That’s because advertising auctions are designed so that ads reach people based on relevance, and certain ads may not reach anyone as a result,” Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of policy and communications, said in the statement.

For 99 percent of the ads, less than $ 1,000 was spent, he said. The total ad spend was $ 100,000, the company has said.

Still, he said it was possible Facebook would find more Russia-linked U.S. ads as it continues to investigate.

Schrage, while criticizing the ad buyers for using fake accounts, also said many of the ads otherwise “did not violate our content policies” and could have remained if bought using real accounts.

“While we may not always agree with the positions of those who would speak on issues here, we believe in their right to do so – just as we believe in the right of Americans to express opinions on issues in other countries,” he wrote.

Facebook is working with others in the tech sector, including Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google, on investigating alleged Russian election meddling, Schrage added.

The 1,000 new workers represent the second time this year that Facebook has responded to a crisis by announcing a hiring spree. In May, it said it would hire 3,000 more people to speed up the removal of videos showing murder, suicide and other violent acts that shocked users.

Like other companies that sell advertising space, Facebook publishes policies for what it allows, prohibiting ads that are violent, discriminate based on race or promote the sale of illegal drugs.

With more than 5 million paying advertisers, however, Facebook has difficulty enforcing all of its policies.

The company said on Monday that it would adjust its policies further “to prevent ads that use even more subtle expressions of violence.” It did not elaborate on what kind of material that would cover.

Facebook also said it would begin to require more thorough documentation from people who want to run ads about U.S. federal elections, demanding that they confirm their businesses or organizations.

Reporting by David Ingram in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Tech

Who Will Take Responsibility for Facebook?

Just after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001, Leslie E. Robertson, the twin towers’ chief engineer, plunged into a period of moral reckoning.

As a young hotshot in the 1960s, Robertson had defied the engineering establishment to erect the iconic skyscrapers. Now, at age 73, he brooded. Over and over, observers suggested that the arrogant silhouette of the towers was their undoing. Robertson seemed surpassingly sad. He emailed a colleague in verse: “It is hard / But that I had done a bit more … / Had the towers stood up for just one minute longer … / It is hard.” As The Wall Street Journal reported, when asked at a public forum if he wished he had done anything differently, he wept.

But Robertson also conducted a careful audit of his work. The blueprints, the physics, the math came in for close review. He knew he had designed the buildings expressly to brook the impact of an airliner. But flaming jet fuel had brought them down. He concluded that inoculating the towers against those all-consuming fires would not have been feasible. “You could always prepare for more and more extreme events, but there has to be a risk analysis of what’s reasonable,” Robertson told a Newsweek reporter. In his reckoning, Robertson managed to avoid the twin seductions of defensiveness and ­self-savagery—and took responsibility for his work.

Mark Zuckerberg, an engineer in another key, has also seen his magnum opus breached, with a force that may yet shatter it. Over the past two and a half years, Facebook’s integrity as a place that “helps you connect and share with the people in your life” has been all but laid to waste—as it has served as a clearinghouse for propaganda, disinformation, fake news, and fraud accounts. More serious still: Facebook may not just have been vulnerable to information warfare; it may have been complicit.

Zuckerberg, however, has been unaccountably slow to make earnest amends. This week for Yom Kippur, 11 months after the election, he did post what’s known as a Chesbon HaHefesh—the moral accounting undertaken annually in a spirit of repentance. But his statement seemed pro forma—perhaps even aggrieved. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.” Odd phrasing. Was Zuckerberg confessing to his own misconduct? Or was he saying that his work “was used” by such criminals, which suggested that he himself was owed the amends?

But even this pass-agg penance marked a change of course for Zuckerberg personally, if not for Facebook. In November, fresh off the US election, he dismissed as “crazy” the idea that fake news on Facebook had influenced the race. (He disavowed the word when he came in for criticism ten months later.) When President Obama reportedly urged Zuckerberg to take seriously that Facebook could be exploited by hostile powers intent on undermining democracy, even then Zuckerberg shrugged.

Meanwhile, he whistled in the dark, lighting off on a 50-state walkabout dense with Insta opportunities. It looked for all the world like he was running for president himself. That impression was bolstered when he later hired Joel Benenson, a former campaign adviser to Obama and ­Hillary Clinton.

As the summer wore on, it became unmistakable that Facebook’s problems ran deeper than fake news. In June, Facebook officials reportedly met with the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of that body’s investigation into Russia’s election interference. In August the BBC released an interview with a member of the Trump campaign saying, “Without Facebook we wouldn’t have won.”

At last, in September, Facebook broke its silence. The company admitted it had received payments for ads placed by organizations “likely operated out of Russia.” These were troll operations with a wide range of phony ads designed to fan the flames of American racism, anti-LGBT sentiment, and fervor for guns­—as well as to build opposition to Clinton. Zuckerberg announced that the ads had been turned over to Congress, and he ­intimated that an internal investigation at Facebook would likely turn up more such ad deals: “We are looking into foreign actors, including additional Russian groups and other former Soviet states, as well as organizations like the campaigns, to further our own understanding of how they used all of our tools.”

The statement sounded more like fact-­finding than soul-searching. Zuckerberg seemed to be surveying a different Facebook from the one that allowed possibly Kremlin-­backed entities to target people who “like” hate speech with racist propaganda. A Facebook like that would need a gut renovation; Zuckerberg’s Facebook just needed tweaks.

Facebook is indeed a new world order. It determines our digital and real-world behavior in incalculable ways. It does all this without any kind of Magna Carta except a vague hypothesis that connectivity is a given good. And yes, it’s largely unregulated, having styled itself as nothing more than a platform—a ­Switzerland pose that lets it seem as benign as its bank-blue guardrails, which stand as a kind of cordon sanitaire between Facebook and the rest of the unwashed internet.

In 2006, a college kid talked me off ­Myspace and onto Facebook by insisting that Facebook was orderly while Myspace was emo and messy. That kid was right. Facebook is not passionate; it’s blandly sentimental. It runs on Mister Rogers stuff: shares and friends and likes. Grandparents and fortysomethings are not spooked by it. Like the animated confetti that speckles Facebook’s anodyne interface, our lives on Facebook—the bios and posts—seem to belong to us and not to the company’s massive statehouse, which looks on in­differently as we coo over pups and newborns. (Or is it a penal colony? In any case, it keeps order.) Facebook just is the internet to huge numbers of people. Voters, in other words.

But that order is an illusion. Nothing about Facebook is intrinsically organized or self-regulating. Its terms of service change fitfully, as do its revenue centers and the ratio of machine learning to principled human stewardship in making its wheels turn. The sheen of placidity is an effect of software created by the same mind that first launched Facemash—a mean-­spirited ­hot-or-not comparison site—but then reinvented it as Facebook, an “online directory,” to prevent anyone from shutting it down. The site was designed to make the libertarian chaos of the web look trustworthy, standing against the interfaces of kooky YouTube and artsy Myspace. Those places were Burning Man. Facebook was Harvard.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose book about Facebook, Anti-Social Media, comes out next year, describes Zuckerberg as a bright man who would have done well to finish his education. As Vaidhyanathan told me, “He lacks an appreciation for nuance, complexity, contingency, or even difficulty. He lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

Zuckerberg may just lack the moral framework to recognize the scope of his failures and his culpability. Like Robertson, he was a defiant hotshot when he launched Facebook. Maybe he still is. It’s hard to imagine he will submit to truth and reconciliation, or use Facebook’s humiliation as a chance to reconsider its place in the world. Instead, he will likely keep lawyering up and gun it on denial and optics, as he has during past ­litigation and conflict.

To be sure, unlike on 9/11, there are no mass casualties; there’s no flaming wreckage. But that may only heighten how important it is for Zuckerberg to take responsibility. Because there are 2 billion of us on Facebook. We’re all inside his tower. And, heaven help us, we have nowhere else to go.

This article will appear in the November issue. Subscribe here.

Tech

Facebook, Google, Twitter asked to testify on Russian meddling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Executives from Facebook, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter have been asked to testify to the U.S. Congress in coming weeks as lawmakers probe Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election, committee sources said on Wednesday.

A Senate aide said executives from the three firms had been asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee to appear at a public hearing on Nov. 1.

The leaders of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee said the panel would hold an open hearing next month with representatives from unnamed technology companies in an effort to “better understand how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election.”

Representatives for Facebook and Google confirmed they had received invitations from the Senate committee but did not say whether the companies would attend. Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The House panel did not immediately identify any companies, but a committee source said lawmakers expected to hear from the same three firms the Senate had asked to testify.

The requests are the latest move by congressional investigators to gain information from internet companies as they probe the extent of Moscow’s alleged efforts to disrupt last year’s U.S. election. Lawmakers in both parties have grown increasingly concerned that social networks may have played a key role in Russia’s influence operation.

Facebook revealed this month that suspected Russian trolls purchased more than $ 100,000 worth of divisive ads on its platform during the 2016 election cycle, a revelation that has prompted calls from some Democrats for new disclosure rules for online political ads.

On Wednesday, Trump attacked Facebook in a tweet and suggested the world’s largest social network had colluded with other media outlets that opposed him. The president has been skeptical of the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election and has denied his campaign colluded with Moscow.

The salvo prompted a lengthy rebuke from Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who said both Trump and liberals were upset about ideas and content on Facebook during the campaign.

“That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like,” Zuckerberg wrote on his personal Facebook page.

Other internet firms besides Facebook are also facing rising scrutiny over how Russia may have leveraged their platforms. Twitter is expected to privately brief the Senate panel on Thursday.

Republican Senator James Lankford, who has received classified information about Russia’s interference as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday that the country’s attempts to sow discord in U.S. domestic affairs had not abated.

Russian internet trolls over the weekend fueled the debate ignited by Trump over whether NFL players should have the right to kneel during the national anthem, Lankford said.

Also on Wednesday, the Daily Beast, citing unnamed sources, reported that a Facebook group named “United Muslims of America” was a fake account linked to the Russian government and that it was used to push false claims about U.S. politicians, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The group bought Facebook ads to reach targeted audiences, promoting political rallies aimed at Muslims, the website reported.

The Senate and House intelligence committees are two of the main congressional panels probing allegations that Russia sought to interfere in the U.S. election to boost Trump’s chances at winning the White House, and possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Dustin Volz, additional reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Tech

How Facebook, Google Handle Political Ads Will Inevitably Change, Marketers Say

Facebook and Alphabet’s Google have little choice but to rein in internet political ads in the face of growing U.S. government pressure, a panel of advertising consultants and executives said on Monday.

Speaking at a trade conference, the marketers seized on allegations that Russian operatives bought U.S. political ads on Facebook as evidence that the sector cannot go on being unregulated.

“I think there will be more scrutiny, and there better be more self-regulation. Otherwise, I think regulation will be coming,” Brent McGoldrick, a political ad consultant and a Republican, said at Advertising Week New York.

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to do more to deter governments from using Facebook to manipulate elections in other countries, after the company disclosed $ 100,000 in Russian ad purchases in the months before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The 3,000 ads included some that highlighted support for Democrat Hillary Clinton among Muslim women, as well as others that showed a deep understanding of U.S. social divides, the Washington Post reported on Monday.

Facebook shares ended down 4.5% on Monday, closing at $ 162.87, as some investors worried the tech sector had become too expensive.

Zuckerberg has also unveiled sweeping changes to how his company handles political ads, saying it would make them visible to all users regardless of whom the ads target.

Andrew Capone, senior vice president of NCC Media, a cable trade group, joked on Monday’s panel that during the 2016 election campaign, “Facebook took in over 300 million rubles – I’m sorry, dollars.”

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McGoldrick said on the panel: “If I were Facebook and Google and everyone else, I would be developing a code of conduct and a set of criteria. They may already exist, but obviously it’s not either robust enough or transparent enough.”

Google has said it has no evidence on its ad platform of a Russian propaganda campaign like the one Facebook found.

The two Silicon Valley firms are set to take a combined 63% of the U.S. market this year, according to research firm eMarketer.

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Though Facebook and Google have for years resisted regulation of political ads, congressional investigators and U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller have helped to change the situation, said Jefrey Pollock, president of public relations firm Global Strategy Group.

“Things change with a subpoena,” Pollock, a Democrat, said as part of the panel.

Tech

Facebook to overhaul political ads after threat of U.S. regulation

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc (FB.O) on Thursday launched an overhaul of how it handles paid political advertisements, giving a concession to U.S. lawmakers who have threatened to regulate the world’s largest social network over secretive ads that run during election campaigns.

The company also said it would turn over to congressional investigators the 3,000 political ads that it says were likely purchased by Russian entities during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said the company, for the first time, would now make it possible for anyone to see any political ads that run on Facebook, no matter whom they target.

Facebook will also demand that political advertisers disclose who is paying for the advertisements, a requirement that under U.S. law applies to political ads on television but not on social media.

“We will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg, broadcasting live on Facebook from company headquarters in Menlo Park, California, said the changes would help address concerns that governments including Russia are using Facebook ads to meddle in other countries’ elections.

Earlier this month, Facebook said an internal review had shown that an operation likely based in Russia spent $ 100,000 on 3,000 Facebook ads promoting divisive messages in the months before and after last year’s U.S. presidential election. The company initially declined to turn over details on the ads to Congress.

U.S. congressional investigators and special counsel Robert Mueller are examining alleged Russian election interference, which Moscow has denied.

Investigators are interested in other companies as well. Representatives for Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) are set to meet next week with staff from the Senate Intelligence Committee in relation to inquiries into the 2016 election.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Thursday that he wants to hear from Facebook, Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google, Twitter and others in public hearings.

“It will be important for the committee to scrutinize how rigorous Facebook’s internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did,” Schiff said in a statement.

‘WILD, WILD WEST’

The political advertising changes represent a retreat for Facebook, which for years has resisted calls from transparency advocates and academics for the regulation of political ads. The company has instead treated them like all commercial ads.

In the days after the November 2016 U.S. election, Zuckerberg said it was a “crazy idea” to think that misinformation on Facebook swayed the vote toward President Donald Trump.

Senator Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, this month compared political ads on social media to the “wild, wild West” and said legislation might be needed to address them.

The U.S. Federal Election Commission last week sought public comment on possible regulatory changes to digital ads and considered whether to call Facebook and other tech firms before the commission for a public hearing.

Facebook has grown to be the leading online platform for political ads because of its low costs and tools for targeting messages to narrow audiences.

U.S. political campaigns likely spent $ 300 million on Facebook ads during the 2016 election cycle, according to Nomura analysts, though the exact amount is unknown.

It remained unclear whether Facebook’s voluntary changes would satisfy demands for government action.

Warner and another senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, on Thursday sent a letter to colleagues inviting them to be co-sponsors of legislation they are writing that would formalize and expand the commitments Zuckerberg made.

The legislation, they wrote, would require digital platforms with 1 million or more users to maintain a publicly available file of all election-related ads bought by people who spend more than $ 10,000, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

Trevor Potter, president of the pro-transparency Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement that his group would “carefully monitor Facebook’s implementation of this new policy.” He said Facebook “helped create the secrecy that gave rise to foreign interference in the 2016 elections.”

In the past, Facebook has argued that ad details had to remain confidential unless released by the advertisers.

GERMAN ELECTION MONITORING

Zuckerberg, who returned to work on Thursday after a month of paternity leave, laid out other steps the company would take to prevent governments from using Facebook to manipulate each other’s elections.

He said Facebook would hire 250 additional people; expand partnerships with election commissions around the world; and adapt systems to help deter political bullying.

Facebook has not found an attempt at election-meddling in Germany, Zuckerberg said, but he added that the company would continue to examine fake accounts that it has removed in advance of Sunday’s German national election.

“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for,” Zuckerberg said.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said in a blog post on Thursday that it was unusual for Facebook to voluntarily turn over information to government authorities, as it was doing by giving U.S. lawmakers copies of ads.

The company has long had a rigid policy of refusing to turn over any user information without a court order or other legal process.

But ultimately, Stretch wrote, “We believe the public deserves a full accounting of what happened in the 2016 election.”

Reporting by David Ingram in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Dustin Volz and Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Abinaya Vijayaraghavan in Bangaluru; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Diane Craft

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Tech

Facebook is down, go do something more fun while it recovers [Update: It’s back!]

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Facebook is down for many users around the world, according to DownDetector.co.uk and reports on Twitter. It’s the second outage within a week for the social network, and many people are unable to log in and view those critical status messages, Pages and other updates. These problems don’t tend to last too long, but we’ve asked Facebook for a statement on the situation and will update here when normal service resumes. Until then, go fly a kite or something. Update: An intermittent service is coming back for some users but the site still isn’t back to normal. Some users are also still…

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Oculus unveils $99 Gear VR with Netflix, Facebook and Twitch Support

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In what is perhaps a long time coming for VR enthusiasts who have expressed faith in Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey’s vision for mainstream consumer hardware, the Facebook-acquired brand is finally putting it all together. Today at the keynote for Oculus Connect 2 in Hollywood, Samsung VP of Mobile Peter Koo announced a $ 99 Gear VR headset that will make use of Oculus technology and be ready in time for holiday shopping. The hardware will be compatible with all of Samsung’s Gear products, including the Note 5, S6 Edge+, S6, S6 Edge. Koo said it will be available to ship on Black Friday. The Gear…

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Facebook goes down and Twitter lights up

Facebook crashed for at least 10 minutes today and then struggled to fully come back online.

When users tried to open or refresh their Facebook pages a little after 12:30 p.m. ET today, they were greeted not with their news feed but with a largely blank screen that simply said, “Sorry, something went wrong. We’re working on it and we’ll get it fixed as soon as we can.”

The site began to come back online around 12:50 p.m., though some users reported still having trouble loading the site until about 1 p.m.

Facebook did not return a request for information on what caused the problem.

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