The House Intelligence Committee has begun a hearing with leading internet titans. As it promised to do last month, the committee released a collection of data Facebook ads, and Twitter accounts run by Russia-backed accounts on the social network. They're just a sample of the trove that foreign groups paid $100,000 to host on Facebook, part of a campaign that reached 126 million Americans, the social network announced earlier this week. How much those ads influenced the election is what the committee hopes to answer.
In the hearing's opening statement, ranking member of the House Intel Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA) explained that the ads were part of Russian-backed accounts' attempts to support Donald Trump's presidency. But he also explained that the sample ads showcased things we've known the accounts were fond of doing, like exploiting social divisions in one example. As Schiff wrote: "... the social media campaign was also designed to further a broader Kremlin objective: sowing discord in the U.S. by inflaming passions on a range of divisive issues. The Russians did so by weaving together fake accounts, pages, and communities to push politicized content and videos, and to mobilize real Americans to sign online petitions and join rallies and protests."
Schiff's statement linked to other material, including a list of known Russia-backed Twitter handles as well as metadata (below each entry) for cost and impressions that indicated how successful some of the example ads were. A broadsheet summarized the stakes, as it were, at the start of the hearing: So far as we know, the Kremlin's Internet Research Agency bought almost 3,400 ads, had 470 Facebook accounts and its content was seen by 126 million Americans. Twitter didn't get off any easier, with over 36,000 Russia-backed bot accounts tweeting 1.4 million times which had 288 million views. Russia-linked accounts on YouTube posted over 1,100 videos, which got over 300,000 views.
Schiff finished the statement by laying a heavy responsibility at the feet of the gathered tech titans: "Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose, and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future. The companies here today must play a central role as we seek to better protect legitimate political expression, while preventing cyberspace from being misused by our adversaries."