Russia-Financed Ad Linked Clinton and Satan
By CECILIA KANG, NICHOLAS FANDOS and MIKE ISAAC
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers released scores of political ads on Wednesday purchased by Russian agents on Facebook and Twitter that showed the extent of the Kremlin’s attempts to polarize the American voting public on issues like race, police abuse and religion.
Russia-linked actors created accounts with names like Blacktivists and Back the Badge aimed at voters concerned about police relations with their communities, and other accounts that called for secure borders that were aimed at immigration hard-liners. One account, Army of Jesus, published an illustration of an arm-wrestling match between Christ and the devil. “Satan: If I win, Clinton wins!” the headline read.
The sampling of ads, some of which had been made public earlier, came during a second day of hearings with the top lawyers for Facebook, Twitter and Google and were intended to show the executives how pervasively Russia used their platforms to further its campaign of misinformation. Lawmakers of both parties expressed frustration with answers that fell short of what they had hoped and insisted that the companies, long the darlings of American technology, do better.
“I must say, I don’t think you get it,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who was also at the first hearing a day earlier. “I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers.”
Facebook, Google and Twitter said their general counsels were best equipped to dive into policy and legal questions. But counsels’ appearances on Capitol Hill also allowed the companies’ chief executives to escape high-profile scrutiny.
“I’m disappointed that you’re here, and not your C.E.O.s,” said Senator Angus King, independent of Maine.
Lawmakers also complained that the companies had taken months to acknowledge Russia’s interference on their sites.
“I have more than a little bit of frustration that many of us on this committee have been raising this issue since the beginning of this year, and our claims were, frankly, blown off by the leadership of your companies,” said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, spent Wednesday at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., talking to investors and analysts as they reported blockbuster quarterly earnings. The stocks of both Google and Facebook, which faced the most criticism in the hearings, are at record highs.
During the earnings call, Mr. Zuckerberg was unequivocal in his stance on the issue of Russian meddling in the election.
“I’ve expressed how upset I am that the Russians used our tools to sow mistrust,” Mr. Zuckerberg said, noting that Facebook’s profits will probably be affected by the amount of money the company will spend fighting abuse of its platform. Facebook said it plans to double the number of content reviewers it employs, to 20,000, and will try to add a greater degree of transparency into its advertising system.
“What they did is wrong, and we’re not going to stand for it,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
The tech companies also provided new numbers on the reach of Russia’s influence campaign. Facebook said an estimated 150 million users of its main site and its subsidiary, Instagram, were exposed to the posts, a larger figure than it provided even as recently as Monday.
During the last of the three hearings, members of the House Intelligence Committee spoke in front of posters displaying the content, complaining that it was divisive.
Representative André Carson, Democrat of Indiana, said an account called Being Patriotic, which amassed 200,000 followers, pushed out content that “cynically exploits grieving officers and their loved ones in order to pit Americans concerned about our law enforcement personnel against Americans concerned about African-American lives lost during police encounters.”
The account was created by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency.
“My concern is that a dictator like Vladimir Putin abused flaws in our social media platforms to inject the worst kind of identity politics into the voting decisions of at least 100 million Americans,” Mr. Carson said, referring to the Russian president.
Facebook has found a particularly vocal set of critics on the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Mr. Carson is a member along with Representative Terri A. Sewell, Democrat of Alabama. Together, they pressed Facebook to grapple with its role in promoting racial animus.
Ms. Sewell cited figures showing few blacks in Facebook’s work force and its leadership — a lack of diversity that she said made it hard to believe that those reviewing socially divisive ads could spot problematic posts.
The hearings exposed a growing rift between Silicon Valley and Washington, where sentiment toward big tech companies has drastically shifted.
While the lawyers showed humility and promised to beef up security and improve technology to prevent foreign interference in elections, they admitted they could not guarantee they would prevent future intrusions. Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, said the company would work on creating new technologies to detect foreign actors and misinformation on its site. All three said they would build artificial intelligence tools to combat fake and problematic content.
Some lawmakers used the hearings to stake a position on the influence of the Kremlin’s social media use in the election. The conclusions, particularly among senators, split along political lines. Republicans offered an implicit defense of the legitimacy of President Trump’s victory and dismissed the effect of Russian meddling.
“A lot of folks, including many in the media, have tried to reduce this entire conversation down to one premise: Foreign actors conducted a surgically executed covert operation to help elect a United States president,” said Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. “I’m here to tell you this story does not simplify that easily.”
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, emphasized that the real intent of Russian propaganda was to broadly spread misinformation and create chaos.
“These operations — while we’re talking about the 2016 presidential race — they’re not limited to 2016, and they were not limited to the presidential race, and they continue to this day,” he said. “They are much more widespread than one election.”
Such comments offered a rare view into the Senate committee’s investigation, which has largely played out over the past nine months in secured briefing rooms. Publicly and in private, Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner have taken pains to preserve bipartisan comity, and their success has set the committee apart from the other panels investigating Russia’s efforts.
But the difference in their emphasis on Wednesday also underscored the political realities buffeting their work. In advancing an investigation tied to Mr. Trump, Mr. Burr has been careful to make clear that the committee’s work is larger than an individual candidate, and he has repeatedly tried to tamp down expectations about what it might find.
Democrats did not have such reticence.
“Whether the Russians and the campaign coordinated these efforts, we do not yet know, but it is true that the Russians mounted what could be described as an independent expenditure campaign on Mr. Trump’s behalf,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, also took aim at Mr. Trump’s dismissal of the role of Russia-linked social media in his win. Mr. Heinrich challenged Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, to acknowledge such content and the role that fake accounts linked to Russia and other misinformation had in the election.
“Last month, President Trump called Russian-purchased Facebook ads a ‘hoax,’” Mr. Heinrich said. “I’ve looked at those Russian-sponsored Facebook ads. I certainly hope you’ve had a chance to review them. Are they, in fact, a hoax?”
Mr. Stretch said no. “The existence of those ads were on Facebook,” he said, “and it was not a hoax.”