SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter said Thursday it had shut down 201 accounts that were tied to the same Russian operatives who posted thousands of political ads on Facebook, but the effort frustrated lawmakers who said the problem is far broader than the company appeared to know.
The company said it also found three accounts from the news site RT — which Twitter linked to the Kremlin — that spent $274,100 in ads on its platform in 2016.
Despite the disclosures, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) questioned whether the company is doing enough to stop Russian operatives from using its platform to spread disinformation and division in American society.
Warner said Twitter’s presentation to a closed door meeting of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers Thursday morning was “deeply disappointing” and “inadequate on almost every level.” Twitter also made a presentation to House Intelligence Committee staffers in the afternoon.
The company “showed an enormous lack of understanding… about how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions,” a visibly frustrated Warner said.
The meetings between the company and Congressional investigators was part of a widening government probe into how Russian operatives used Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other technology platforms to widen fissures in America and spread disinformation during the 2016 campaign. Those companies have come under increasing pressure from Capitol Hill to investigate Russian meddling and are facing the possibility of new regulations that could impact their massive advertising businesses.
The Washington Post reported this week that some of the 3,000 Facebook ads bought by Russian operatives promoted African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter. Those ads were targeted at users in specific locations such as Ferguson and Baltimore, two cities that have faced violent protests over police shootings of black men. Ads aimed at voters in other regions, meanwhile, suggested that the same groups pose a rising political threat.
Other ads featured Muslims supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton for president and were targeted at Facebook users who might fear Muslims.
Facebook, Google and Twitter are being summoned to a public hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Nov. 1.
The Twitter accounts, which were taken down over the last month, were associated with 470 accounts and pages that Facebook last month said came from the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-connect troll farm. Twitter said the groups on Facebook had 22 corresponding Twitter accounts. Twitter then found an additional 179 accounts linked to those 22.
But lawmakers and analysts criticized Twitter for appearing as if it had only accepted and looked into the data that it had received from Facebook, rather than conducting a broader internal investigation.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Twitter needs to launch “a far more robust investigation” into how Russian actors are using its site, adding that “there are serious questions about whether Twitter has the capability to do the forensics necessary to determine how much the Russians used their platform.”
In its blog post, Twitter did not reveal who was targeted by the ads and how many times they were shared. It is also unclear whether Twitter did a broader search of its users for Russian interference.
Twitter said it was cooperating with the Congressional investigation. “Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process, which is a cornerstone for all democracies. We will continue to strengthen Twitter against attempted manipulation, including malicious automated accounts and spam, as well as other activities that violate our Terms of Service,” its blog post said.
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, said there’s plenty of evidence that Russian intelligence operatives have been on Twitter for years and have used the platform to amplify messages.
“We need to think very carefully about what role we want these companies to have in our debate – and, since these platforms largely regulate themselves, what kind of accountability we want them to have,” Howard said.
Silicon Valley has long enjoyed a hands-off approach from regulators, and has become a major lobbying force in Washington to keep things that way. But that attitude appears to be shifting quickly.
Last week Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) urged colleagues to support a bill that would create new transparency requirements for platforms that run political ads online, akin to those already in place for TV stations, according to a letter obtained by The Post. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum – from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) – have called for more scrutiny into the market power of technology companies over the last few months.
Facebook has faced the greatest scrutiny. The company has said it will provide the 3,000 political ads, in addition to payment information and data about who those ads targeted, to Congress in the coming days.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg apologized for saying it was “pretty crazy” that fake news could have influenced the U.S. election.
“Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive,” he wrote. He then emphasized the role Facebook played in spurring authentic debate and sustaining democratic ideals was much greater than any exploitation that took place.
“The data we have has always shown that our broader impact — from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote — played a far bigger role in this election,” he said.
Google, the largest online advertising company in the world, has also been asked to provide information to Congressional investigators and to testify before Congress, but has not said whether it will do so. The company has said it will cooperate with any investigation and has “seen no evidence” of a Russian-promoted ad campaign. Google did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In many ways, Twitter has been the most vulnerable to exploitation among social media companies. The company officially says the 5 percent of accounts on Twitter are automated bots, but outside researchers say the number could be much higher.
It is very easy to buy fake accounts on Twitter, making it hard for the company to discern the extent of the Russian meddling, analysts said.
“They have no idea who is on their platform. If it wasn’t for Facebook’s data, they would have no idea these were even Russian accounts,” said Clint Watts, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. ““Anyone can create an account anonymously on Twitter and hide its origin.”
Entous and Demirjian reported from Washington