The Russian disinformation group using social media to create chaos in US politics switched tactics after the presidential vote from criticising Hillary Clinton to questioning the validity of President Donald Trump’s election, Facebook said on Tuesday.
Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, told Congress that accounts started by the Internet Research Agency fomented discord about the legitimacy of a Trump presidency after the election until the company shut them down in September.
Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed concern about the influence of social media as Facebook, Twitter and Google all gave evidence about extreme content and Russian disinformation to the Senate judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.
The Internet Research Agency is a Kremlin-connected troll farm that the three companies have all found trying to manipulate US audiences on their platform. Facebook was the first to discover the group, saying it believes 126m people in the US saw a post from a fake page set up by the organisation.
The posts focused on political issues from race relations to gun rights to gay rights and attempt to sow dissent, and even organise “real life” protests, rather than explicitly endorse specific candidates. Mr Stretch described the content as “so vile, so upsetting, so cynical”.
In a tense two and a half-hour showdown, senators tried to understand how to legislate to ensure foreign actors are unable to influence US elections through online platforms, and questioned whether other countries could also have been running such campaigns, from China to North Korea.
The technology companies tried to see off the threat of legislation by emphasising the recent policy changes designed to make advertising more transparent and their growing teams of employees to track disinformation operations online.
Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein said the power of social media was “tremendous and frightening”, while Republican senator John Neely Kennedy said the companies had done “enormous good” but their power sometimes scares him.
Senators used specific examples of ads and posts found on the networks to question the representatives of the tech companies about their influence.
Senator Christopher Coons cited a Facebook event where Russian actors had succeeded in organising a “Miners for Trump” rally in Pennsylvania. “Russians trying to influence our election duped Americans in Pennsylvania into coming to an event which was nothing but a fake,” he said.
Several senators were concerned about fake campaigns that implored people to vote online or by text, when no such option was available. Senator Richard Blumenthal showed a post of a doctored picture of comedian Aziz Ansari appearing to hold a sign claiming you could vote from home.
The technology companies faced detailed questions on how they use data and targeting, whether they could detect if foreigners use shell companies to buy advertising and if they should ban anyone buying political adverts in foreign currencies.
But the politicians sometimes showed a misunderstanding of how the platforms worked, for example questioning why Twitter did not know how many people had tried to vote by text message, following the instructions of the fake accounts.
The tech companies refused to unequivocally endorse the proposed Honest Ads Act proposed by senators Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner and backed by John McCain — instead saying they wanted to work on the nuances with Congress.
Facebook stressed that the Russian attempts to influence US democracy go far beyond its platform. “This is not just an online attack, this is an online attack that affects many platforms and it is offline,” said Mr Stretch. “This is a national security issue.”
Additional reporting by Barney Jopson in Washington