In an update on the progress of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the Senate Intelligence Committee weighed in on recent revelations that have implicated major tech companies. The committee plans to hear open public testimony from Facebook, Twitter and Google on November 1 pertaining to their role in selling political ads to Russian government entities and fostering an environment in which shadowy foreign-funded political propaganda efforts could thrive.
According to the chairman, Richard Burr, it took time for tech leaders to warm up to the notion that they were responsible for influence campaigns run on their platforms. “I was concerned at first that some social media platforms did not take this threat seriously enough,” Burr said. “The three companies we’ve invited, Google, Twitter and Facebook, will appear in a public hearing.”
Burr made it clear that his committee could not release the ads that Facebook handed over as part of the investigation, but Facebook and the other companies are not constrained by the committee from doing so.
“We don’t release documents provided by to our committee, period,” Burr said. “[It’s] not a practice that we’re going to get into. Clearly if any of the social media platforms would like to do that, we’re fine with them doing it because we’ve already got scheduled an open hearing. We believe that the American people deserve to know firsthand.”
Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner echoed Burr’s statement.
“There will be more forensics done by these companies,” Warner said. “I think they’ve got some more work to do and I’m pleased to say I think they’re out doing that work now.”
“At the end of the day it’s important that the public sees these ads,” he added.
The committee is focused on three areas of the Russian ad scandal. First, Burr and Warner stated that Americans have a right to know the source of social media ads and if they were created by “foreign entities.” Second, when a story is trending, the committee believes that Americans should be able to determine if that trending topic is a result of bots or otherwise artificial engagement. Third, “you ought to be able to go down and take a look at an ad run for or against you like you’d be able to get a look at that content on TV,” Burr said.
The committee reiterated that its investigation had made it clear that Russia’s efforts to interfere with the American political process are ongoing.
“The Russian active measures efforts did not end on election day 2016,” Warner said. “We need to be on guard.”
For its part, Facebook tried to get ahead of Wednesday’s press briefing, printing a full page ad in The Washington Post as damage control for whatever Burr and Warner said about the company’s role in the election and its interactions with the committee.
TechCrunch has reached out to Facebook about its reaction to today’s committee briefing and will update if and when we hear back.
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