While most of the attention has focused on Facebook when it comes to running Russia-linked ads designed to influence the 2016 election, Google and Twitter are also under the microscope for doing something similar, which reinforces the point that this isn’t a problem related specifically to Facebook, but one connected to something much broader about how Internet platforms behave, and the way advertising and media work now.
All three companies have been asked to testify before both the Senate and the House intelligence committees, which are investigating how much influence Russian agents connected to the government had over the information flowing through those networks about the 2016 campaign. Reports from both the FBI and the CIA have said that this likely had an impact on the election, although the magnitude of that impact is difficult to quantify.
In early September, when Facebook was starting to draw attention for links to Russian election-meddling, Google went on the record as saying it hadn’t found any sign of similar untoward advertising campaigns on its platforms. “We’re always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies and we’ve seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.
A little over a month later, the company was telling a different story. Although it hasn’t confirmed the reports publicly, sources told the Washington Post, the New York Times and Reuters that Google had come across signs of advertising buys that appeared to be part of a Russia-backed misinformation campaign involving the election — although the ads don’t appear to be from the Internet Research Agency, the “troll factory” behind the Facebook campaign.
The campaign on Google represented less than $100,000 worth of advertising. A total of about $5,000 worth of search ads and display ads were bought by accounts believed to be connected to the Russian government, according to the New York Times, while a further $53,000 or so were bought by accounts with Russian Internet addresses or with Russian currency. It’s not clear whether these were related to Russian government entities.
Google doesn’t offer advertisers the same kind of granular targeting that Facebook does, in which individuals can be selected to receive a specific message based on their political views and other information. The company also has a policy that prevents targeting of ads based on race and religion. Ironically, Google found the Russian-linked ad buying by using data from Twitter, a source told the Washington Post.
As with Facebook, the fact that Russian government entities and other agents were able to buy and distribute ads and other information on Google and Twitter is not a bug or a flaw in the system but an example of it working exactly as intended. All three companies have built more or less automated advertising networks that allow companies and individuals to buy ads with virtually zero human input.
Twitter has been a bit more forthcoming with information than Google, but its efforts haven’t been universally well-received. The company told members of the Senate intelligence committee in a closed-door hearing in September that it had found and shut down about 200 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, and it said that the Russian news site RT — which many believe is tied to the government — spent about $275,000 on Twitter ads in 2016.
One of the top-ranking Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee wasn’t impressed by Twitter’s efforts, however. Mark Warner said that the company’s presentation was “inadequate” and “deeply disappointing,” primarily because Twitter only searched its databases for information related to the accounts that Facebook had already identified.
“The notion that their work was basically derivative, based upon accounts that Facebook had identified, showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again, begs many more questions than they ,” Warner said after the presentation.
Not only that, but some of the data that Twitter relied on has since been deleted as a result of the company’s privacy policies around retention of information, according to security analysts. That could complicate the Senate and House investigations into how these platforms were used by Russian agents to try and influence the election.
According to research from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a public-policy group in Washington, more than 600 Twitter accounts — run by both human users and suspected bots or automated accounts — have been linked to what appear to be Russian attempts to influence voter behavior around the election. Other research has also shown signs of a “bot army” that was mobilized by foreign agents during the election.
Thomas Rid, a Strategic Studies professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in Russian disinformation tactics, told Politico: “Were Twitter a contractor for FSB [the Russian intelligence agency], they could not have built a more effective disinformation platform.” Clint Watts, a former FBI agent, said Twitter is problematic because “the truth is they don’t know who is on their platform, or how bad people are doing bad things.”
In a blog post in June, a senior Twitter executive said that the company believes that the network’s “open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information.” This is important, he said, because “we cannot distinguish whether every single Tweet from every person is truthful or not. We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made similar comments when pressed about the company’s responsibility for stopping “fake news” and other forms of misinformation.