Top social media companies Google, Facebook and Twitter told U.S. lawmakers Thursday that foreign interference on their platforms has evolved significantly since the 2016 presidential election.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence heard how these companies are adapting their approaches to combating disinformation as COVID-19, Black Lives Matter protests and the upcoming 2020 presidential election present opportunities for the exploitation of partisan political differences in the United States.
To date, Twitter has not seen signs of foreign actors attempting to exploit U.S. racial divides or differences of opinion on the coronavirus, Nick Pickles, Twitter's director of global public policy strategy and development, told lawmakers.
"We haven't found evidence of concerted platform manipulation by foreign actors in either of those areas," Pickles said.
Facebook's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said his company has yet to see "coordinated inauthentic behavior on the part of foreign governments, particularly targeting voting systems or how to vote in the United States."
But in his opening statement, Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said that while social media companies have made efforts since the 2016 election to address concerns about manipulation of their platforms by foreign entities, "I can't say that I am confident that the 2020 election will be free of interference by malicious actors, foreign or domestic, who aspire to weaponize your platforms to divide Americans, pit us against one another and weaken our democracy."
Representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter told the panel they are seeing an evolution by many foreign actors, who are returning to methods last seen from the 1960s through the 1980s to disseminate misinformation and evade controls the companies put into place in response to concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"We did a takedown of a network linked to Sputnik News, a state media organization with headquarters in Moscow that ran a seemingly independent news organization across Europe, representing themselves as independent," noted Gleicher, who said the networks were all centrally controlled. He said Facebook began blocking ads Wednesday from Russian and other state-run media in anticipation of interference in the upcoming presidential election.
Facebook told U.S. lawmakers Thursday that it had more than 3,500 people working on the issue of safety and security on the platform, with 40 teams specifically focused on election integrity.
"So far this year, we've taken down 18 coordinated networks seeking to manipulate public debate, including three networks originating from Russia, two from Iran and two based here in the United States," Gleicher told lawmakers.
A Pew Research survey found that 44% of Americans used social media platforms as a news source during the 2016 election. Lawmakers noted contentious discussions on social media do much of the work for malicious foreign actors.
"I'm pretty convinced that when this republic dies, it doesn't happen because the Russians broke into Ohio voting machines or they managed to buy ads on Facebook or Twitter. It happens because our politics become so toxic, so polarized, we don't recognize each other anymore as Americans," said Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat. "All it takes is a match from Russia, from Iran or from North Korea, or from China to set off a conflagration."
The House Intelligence Committee is holding virtual hearings because of continuing concerns about the threat of COVID-19. Committee Republicans have chosen not to participate in these virtual hearings this week.
The committee hearing marked the second time social media companies had briefed lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee about the security threat posed by bad actors on their platforms. In 2017, the committee released dozens of Russian-linked ads that circulated on Facebook ahead of the 2016 presidential election.