As lawmakers continue to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, major tech companies sent representatives to Congress to reveal just how much Russian activity was found on their platforms.
General counsels for Facebook, Google and Twitter testified in three different hearings this week as congressional probes into alleged Russian influence in the election continued.
Delegates from tech giants have already met privately with lawmakers on the Hill to discuss ads purchased during the campaign season.
Here’s what you need to know about the tech companies’ involvement.
How is Facebook involved in the investigation?
Last month, Facebook revealed that it uncovered about $100,000 in ad purchases connected to “inauthentic accounts” that violated its policies. Another $50,000 was found to have been spent on “potentially politically related ad spending” that were in Russian.
Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos said the accounts were “likely operated out of Russia.”
As lawmakers have called for more information about the advertisements, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised to make its political advertising more transparent.
Facebook also revealed that content from a Russian group called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) could have reached as many as 126 million users.
President Trump accused Facebook of being “always anti-Trump” in a tweet. But Zuckerberg hit back and said “both sides” of the political aisle were upset by content on Facebook – proving “what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”
What about Twitter?
Twitter representatives previously told lawmakers that it suspended approximately two dozen accounts that were potentially linked to Russia and corresponded to Facebook’s troublesome accounts. Additionally, it said it found 179 related accounts that violated their rules.
Twitter also revealed in a blog post that Russia Today (RT), which it said “has strong links to the Russian government,” spent $274,000 in ads in 2016.
After representatives met with lawmakers, Rep. Mark Warner, D-Va., slammed the information shared from Twitter as being “frankly inadequate on almost every level.” He said Twitter’s explanations of its response was “deeply disappointing.”
Twitter also announced that it has banned ads from RT and Sputnik.
The social media giant said it would use the money already spent on advertisements by RT for research around civic engagement and electoral misinformation.
A Twitter representative told congressional committees that it shuttered nearly 3,000 accounts linked to Russia’s IRA – which is known for spreading pro-Russian government propaganda. That number is nearly 14 times larger than the number of accounts Twitter it handed over to congressional committees three prior.
Russian operatives spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads on YouTube, Google Search products and Gmail regarding the 2016 election, Fox Business reported. However, the ads do not appear to be from the same source as those purchased on Facebook.
Accounts connected with the Russian government spent $4,700 on search and display ads and $53,000 was spent on ads with political material that were purchased from either a Russian territory, Russian Internet address or with Russian currency, according to the Associated Press.
"We are taking a deeper look to investigate attempts to abuse our systems, working with researchers and other companies, and will provide assistance to ongoing inquiries," Google said in a statement.
Google said this week that it would now verify the identity of all election-related ad buys.
What was learned from the congressional hearings?
Facebook, Twitter and Google all promised improvements in how they handle advertisements during the hearings.
The House Intelligence Committee unveiled a bevy of fake Facebook ads said to influence American users by Russia. The ads encouraged street demonstrations against both Trump and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and aimed to generate support and opposition for Civil Rights icons, Sen. Bernie Sanders and certain social issues, including LGBT rights.
At one point during a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., shook his head after he couldn't get all the companies to commit to not accepting political ads bought with foreign currency. Several ads touting Facebook pages called "Back the Badge," ''Being Patriotic," ''Blacktivist," ''South United" and "Woke Blacks" were labeled as being paid for in rubles using Qiwi, a Moscow-based payment provider that aims to serve "the new generation in Russia" and former Soviet republics, according to the company's website.
Twitter accounts and ads, too, came under fire during the hearings. One Twitter ad – said to have been seen by about 34,000 Trump supporters – said Clinton should be removed from the ballot because of the “dynastic succession of the Clinton family.”
Lawmakers also said some Russia-linked ads, including one from an account purporting to be linked to the Tennessee Republican Party, were shared by members of the Trump campaign and administration, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Why does it matter?
The issue over social media’s involvement in the investigation largely stems from advertisements bought from the companies, not necessarily the content shared by users, Dr. Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California, told Fox News.
But the issue further boils down to what is wrong versus what is illegal. Spreading so-called “fake news” is wrong, but it might not be illegal, the social media expert explained.
“We as users of social media platforms do not want the platforms to be telling us what we can or can’t say – or even that we can’t say falsehoods – because people spin the story of their lives to present a public face to our friends and colleagues,” North said. “We don’t want Facebook or Twitter to tell us we can’t do that.”
North predicted that social media companies will begin to strengthen their regulations – or “dress codes” – for future advertisers.
“There are laws [to protect speech] and then there are rules of conduct, including dress codes at offices or schools,” North said. “Whether or not what’s being done by the Russians or fake news or people lying about adventures in their life, are those illegal or in violation of dress codes?”
Shareholders in the major tech companies have also demanded more transparency regarding foreign involvement that could have interfered in the election.
“Like Congress and the American public, shareholders in these companies have serious questions and concerns about how these platforms were used and abused during the 2016 election,” Michael Connor, executive director of the nonprofit Open MIC, said in a statement.
Open MIC said shareholders with assets worth more than $25 billion have filed proposals asking Facebook, Google and Twitter to divulge more information about foreign involvement as well as disinformation and hate speech.
“The investors, through these filings, intend to play a critically important role in holding Facebook, Google and Twitter accountable for what happens on their platforms,” Connor said.
Is Congress doing anything else?
A bipartisan group of senators introduced in October legislation that would regulate advertisements purchased for online platforms. The legislation is aimed at hitting “archaic laws” that allow content and purchasers of advertisements to be hidden from the public, according to a Senate aide who helped draft the Honest Ads Act backed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and John McCain, R-Ariz.
“Online political advertising represents an enormous marketplace, and today there is almost no transparency,” Warner said in a statement. “The Russians realized this, and took advantage in 2016 to spread disinformation and misinformation in an organized effort to divide and distract us.”
In his own statement, McCain contended that current transparency laws dealing with political campaigns “have not kept pace with rapid advances in technology, allowing our adversaries to take advantage of these loopholes to influence millions of American voters with impunity.”
The legislation would require certain digital platforms to keep a public file of all electioneering communications purchased by a person or group totaling more than $500 total on ads.
It also requires online platforms “to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence” Americans.
Fox News' Jason Donner, James Rogers and Brooke Singman contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.