Google, despite earlier assurances that their platform wasn’t being used to spread misinformation in the 2016 campaign, has apparently discovered that Russian-bought ads totaling just under $100,000 were designed to do just that.
Google, on the heels of similar discoveries by its contemporaries Facebook and Twitter, now must decide if it will join those companies in appearing before a Congressional investigation on the matter on November 1 (an earlier report by RedState indicated that Google had already agreed to appear. That was an error).
What is not an error, however, is that these supposedly malicious ads are being used to raise awareness of how political advertising is being used — and abused — by bad actors on social media.
According to the Washington Post, Google actually used Twitter to determine that they had a smaller scale of the same problem that Facebook had earlier uncovered when it shared 3,000 Russian-bought ads —many of which promoted Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Jill Stein — with Congress. Twitter has since reported that it has shut down 201 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, the same Russian “troll farm” responsible for many of the Facebook ads.
Google, meanwhile, has a much smaller incidence of Russian-linked ads, but it is investigating nonetheless. From WaPo:
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russian president Vladmir Putin intervened in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump win. But Silicon Valley companies have received little assistance from the intelligence community, people familiar with the companies’ probes said.
Google discovered the Russian presence on its platforms by siphoning data from another technology company, Twitter, the people familiar with Google’s investigation said. Twitter offers outsiders the ability to access a small amount of historical tweets for free, and charges developers for access to the entire Twitter firehose of data stemming back to 2006.
Google downloaded the data from Twitter and was able to link Russian Twitter accounts to other accounts that had used Google’s services to buy ads, the people said. This was done without the explicit cooperation of Twitter, the people said.
What’s interesting about this is that there’s little doubt Facebook (who, in fairness, was egregiously misused by Russian ad-creating trolls) plans on using at least some of their face time with Congress to discuss “election integrity”. Chances are, based on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s own words, this will include looking at political ad transparency, as we reported here last week.
As part of Zuckerberg’s announced changes, Facebook will start disclosing which pages paid for political ads on its platform — a move that democrats on Capital Hill urged the Federal Election Commission to force this week.
The vice chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, said Wednesday that there are likely “a lot more” fake Facebook accounts affiliated with Russia than what the company has so far disclosed in private briefings with committee staffers. He said the committee, which is tasked with uncovering any Russian interference with US elections, plans to call Facebook executives to publicly testify on Capitol Hill in October.
This could end up being a different front in the battle for free speech, as the Citizens United and associated court rulings determined that discretion in donor information to groups that create political ads is protecting the speech of those individuals. The worry is that this new push to protect the American political process from foreign interference may be the newest battlefield for that fight.
Which could explain why Google, increasingly exposed as deeply associated with progressive causes, is eager to jump into the ring with Facebook, despite having very little proof that they were seriously compromised.
It will be interesting to see if they decide to testify.