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Social media giants asked to testify on Russian election meddling

Facebook, Twitter and Google parent company invited by Senate panel probing interference; Zuckerburg protests after Trump says Facebook against him

In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017, file photo, conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, in San Jose, California. (AP/Noah Berger)
In this Tuesday, April 18, 2017, file photo, conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, in San Jose, California. (AP/Noah Berger)

WASHINGTON — The tech giants Facebook, Twitter and the parent company of Google have been invited to appear November 1 for a public hearing before one of the congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, The Associated Press has learned.

Two people familiar with the Senate intelligence committee’s interactions with the companies confirmed the invitations and the date. The people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private discussions between the committee and the companies.

The hearing comes as the Senate panel has been scrutinizing the ways that the social media platforms and online ads were used by Russians to influence the election. The committee is particularly examining the spread of false news stories and propaganda and whether anyone in the United States helped target those stories to specific users on social media platforms.

Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, had called for a public hearing with the tech companies earlier this month. It’s not yet clear whether the companies have agreed to appear for the public hearing.

The announcement of the hearing comes a week after Facebook agreed to provide the committee with the content of about 3,000 ads, bought by a Russian agency, that were aimed at stirring up divisive political and social issues. Some of those ads included references to presidential candidates in the 2016 election.

In response, US President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday that Facebook was “anti-Trump.”

In a post later Wednesday,Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded that his platform was apolitical and said it had actually aided the democratic process.

“Trump says Facebook is against him. Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like,” he wrote on Facebook.

I want to respond to President Trump's tweet this morning claiming Facebook has always been against him.Every day I…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Facebook has turned the details of the ads bought by Russians over to investigators. According to reports, the ads sought to boost the Democratic and Republican rivals of then-election frontrunner Hillary Clinton, as well as to sow discord among Americans in ways that would damage Clinton’s voter base.

“The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate,” Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said early this month.

“Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House on September 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

Google, a unit of Alphabet, has said it was not used in the alleged Russian campaign to steer the US election.

But according to Buzzfeed, its automated ad-targeting system lets advertisers direct ads to people using racist and anti-Semitic search terms.

Twitter meanwhile has been shown to be a dense thicket of easily faked accounts and news items that allowed alleged Russian operatives to pump out politically divisive and anti-Clinton tweets.

Zuckerberg also said last week that the company will work to make political advertising on its platform more transparent.

Facebook already has met behind closed doors with the committee’s staff as part of the investigation, and Twitter is scheduled to do the same Thursday. Twitter will likely face questions about the spread of false news stories and propaganda through the use of fake accounts and automated bot networks.

In a statement earlier this month, Twitter said it “deeply respects the integrity of the election process,” and it has worked to combat “bots and other forms of manipulation that violate our Terms of Service.”

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