REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON — As many as 126 million Americans may have seen divisive Russian-generated ads and posts on Facebook over the last two years, apparently part of a wide-ranging effort by Moscow to influence the 2016 presidential election, the social media company told Congress on Tuesday.
Russia’s large-scale use of American social media platforms to spread misinformation, disinformation and propaganda to U.S. voters before the election was the focus of a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google agreed to testify before three congressional committees this week after growing criticism from lawmakers about Moscow’s use of popular social media platforms to secretly help Donald Trump and harm his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
They faced withering criticism from lawmakers on the panel, especially Democrats, for failing to head off the Russian interference before the election and for not doing enough to prevent their platforms from being used in a similar manner in the future.
“You put millions of data points together all the time,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) told the company officials. “You can’t put together rubles with a political ad? Those two data points spell out something bad.”
In one Facebook post that ran in May 2016 and was aimed at military veterans, a Russian entity posing as a user named “Heart of Texas” asserted that Clinton was “despised by the overwhelming majority of American veterans” and called for the military to be removed from her control if she were elected president.
“This ad is nothing short of the Russian government directly interfering in our elections — lying to American citizens, duping folks who believe they are joining and supporting a group that is about veterans and based in Texas, when in fact it’s paid for in rubles by Russians,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said.
“Senator, that advertisement has no place on Facebook, and we are committed to preventing that sort of behavior from occurring again on our platform,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, replied.
In another troubling example, a tweet showed a fake photo of comedian Aziz Ansari holding a sign that improperly told voters they could cast their ballots by tweeting “ClintonKaine” with the hashtag “presidentialelection,” to “save time and avoid the line.”
“We took down this and all other tweets like it as illegal voter suppression,” said Sean J. Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, adding that Twitter did not determine how many users sought to vote this way.
The companies outlined steps they are taking to provide users more information about who was buying ads on their platforms and to close fake accounts.
But the new protections apply only to ads that named political candidates, not to more generic ads about controversial issues, the type used overwhelmingly by Russian entities in the last election cycle.
Blocking those types of posts and ads could threaten the open nature of Facebook, Twitter and Google as platforms that allowed all legitimate users to express themselves freely, the executives said.
None of the companies was willing to endorse a bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that would require the same disclosure of the sponsor for online political ads that is currently in place on ads that appear on television and the radio.
The companies have briefed members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees on their findings in a closed-door meeting and provided copies of ads produced by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm known for using troll accounts to post on news sites.
Like Facebook, Twitter and Google also have given information to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading a criminal investigation into whether any of President Trump’s aides coordinated with Russian authorities during or after the campaign. Trump has denied any collusion.
Tuesday’s hearing came a day after Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort Jr., and his top deputy, Richard Gates, pleaded not guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in charges that emerged from the Mueller probe.
A third former campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and has been cooperating with prosecutors in the widening investigation, according to court papers.
Roughly 29 million people were served content in their Facebook news feeds directly from the Internet Research Agency’s 80,000 posts from June 2015 to August 2017, according to Stretch.
But he said a far larger group — about 126 million people, or more than a third of the U.S. population — “may have been served” some type of Russian content from separate pages that posted the ads or linked to them.
The company said it also deleted roughly 170 Instagram accounts that posted about 120,000 pieces of Russian-linked content.
Most of the ads focus on divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum, touching on topics including LGBT matters, race, immigration and gun rights, Facebook has said. Some encourage users to follow pages on these issues, which in turn produced posts on similarly charged subjects.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not require users to submit personal information to set up an account. Company executives told lawmakers that made it harder to trace who was using the platform and their links to Moscow.