WASHINGTON - Top executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google will face lawmakers on Capitol Hill next month to explain what the social media giants are doing to combat foreign information operations.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, and ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner, made the announcement Wednesday, at the start of a hearing on how Russia and other countries and actors have been manipulating social media.
The goal of the September 5 hearing will be “to hear the plans they have in place, to press them to do more, and to work together to address this challenge,” Warner said.
“They can do better to protect our democracy," he added. "I'm concerned that even after 18 months of study we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to Russia's information warfare."
Burr called the foreign information operations, like those being carried out by Russia, “an intolerable assault on the democratic foundation this republic was built on."
"It's also important that the American people know that these activities neither began nor ended with the 2016 elections" Burr said. He warned that activities like those identified recently by Facebook have been going beyond just social media, "creating events on our streets with real Americans unknowingly participating."
Facebook Tuesday announced it had shut down 32 Facebook and Instagram accounts because they were "involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior,” much of it targeting left-wing American political groups.
Facebook said it was too early to say whether the accounts were being run by Russia, but an analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found signs pointing to “the Russian-speaking world.”
In a blog post, the lab noted similarities to activity by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), including “language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues at the top of any given news cycle with content that remained emotive rather than fact-based.”
Facebook’s announcement followed a warning issued by Microsoft less than two weeks ago, which said hackers had targeted the campaigns of at least Congressional candidates in the upcoming election.
Microsoft said the phishing attacks, similar to ones employed by Russian-linked operatives to target the Republican and Democratic campaigns during the 2016 election, were thwarted.
Late last week, The Daily Beast reported one of the targets of those attacks was Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, who has been highly critical of Russia.
During Wednesday’s senate hearing, a number of senators cautioned the issue is much bigger than the 2016 or 2018 elections.
“It is about the integrity of our society," said Sen. Burr. “This is about national security."
“It would be a mistake to think this is just about elections,” added Republican Sen. John Cornyn, noting similar techniques could be used to destroy reputations or tank stock prices.
Experts say some of that already is happening.
“On the state actor front we have seen evidence of campaigns targeting energy and agriculture,” said Renee DiResta, director of Research at New Knowledge.
“In agriculture, that’s taken the form of spreading fear about GMOs [genetically modified organisms],” she said.
“There’s a commercial dimension to this that’s underreported. There’s a lot more going on in the commercial space,” Graphika Founder and CEO John Kelly told lawmakers.
“Sometimes they’re tied, these political attacks and attack on corporations where corporations will be basically punished with falsely amplified boycott campaigns, and similar measures for doing something, which is politically not what Russia wants to see.”