Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to prevent foreign interference in elections around the world, top executives of the two social media giants have told the US Congress.
US intelligence agencies have in the past claimed that Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential election won by President Donald Trump. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the claims during a summit with his American counterpart in Helsinki in July.
Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg and Chief Executive Officer of Twitter Jack Dorsey on September 5 testified before the US Congress.
Sandberg told members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, "We are focused on the upcoming US midterms and on elections around the world. Our efforts in recent elections from Germany to Italy to Mexico to the Alabama special Senate election show us that the investments we are making are yielding results."
"We also know that we cannot stop interference by ourselves. We're working with outside experts, industry, partners and governments, including law enforcement, to share information about threats and prevent abuse".
Facebook is getting better at finding and "stopping our opponents" from financially motivated troll farms to sophisticated military intelligence operations, she said.
"We don't have access to intelligence that the government has, so we don't always know exactly who is behind these attacks or their motives, and that's why we will continue working closely with law enforcement," Sandberg said.
Twitter's Dorsey told lawmakers that his company has made significant progress recently on tactical solutions like identification of many forms of manipulation intending to artificially amplify information, more transparency around who buys ads and how they are targeted, and challenging suspicious logins and account creation.
"We've seen positive results from our work. We're now removing over 200 per cent more accounts for violating our policies. We're identifying and challenging 8 to 10 million suspicious accounts every week, and we're thwarting over a half million accounts from logging in to Twitter every single day," Dorsey said.
Twitter has learned from 2016 and more recently from other nations' elections how to protect the integrity of elections; better tools, stronger policy and new partnerships are already in place, he said.
"We intend to understand the efficacy of these measures to continue to get better, but we all have to think a lot bigger than decades past. We must ask the question, what is Twitter incentivising people to do or not do and why? The answers will lead to tectonic shifts in Twitter and our industry operates. Required changes won't be fast or easy," he said.
Responding to a question, Dorsey said Twitter has also learned a lot from elections around the world; most recently, the Mexican election. Twitter opened a new portal to cover that election, that allows any journalist or government law enforcement to actually report any suspicious behaviour very quickly to it, so that they can take more actions.
"Otherwise, we have been investing in artificial intelligence and machine learning models to again recognise the patterns of behaviour because we believe this is where the greatest leverage will come from, recognising how people artificially amplify information and shutting it down before it spreads, into the shared spaces of Twitter and more broadly, into someone's replies to a tweet," Dorsey said.
Sandberg said, "I think we've learned a lot and I think we're going to have to continue to learn because as we learn, our opponents learn and we have to keep up. We're working on technology and investments in people making sure fake news is disseminated less on the platforms, transparency actions and taking down bad actors."
"We have seen everywhere from Mexico to Brazil to other places around the world, these same techniques deploy differently and each time we see it, I think we get smarter, I think we see the new threat and I think we're able to connect the dots and prevent those threats going forward".
Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, expressed concern that social media is vulnerable to corruption and misuse.
The very worst examples of this are absolutely chilling and a threat to democracy, he said.
Ranking Member Senator Mark Warner said that Russians continue to infiltrate and manipulate American social media to hijack national conversation.
"You've gotten better, and I'm pleased to see that you've begun to take action, but also the Russians are getting better as well. They have now become harder to track. Worse, now that the Russian playbook is out there, other adversaries, as we saw recently, like Iran, have joined the fray," he said.
Warner said foreign-based disinformation campaigns represent just a fraction of the challenge before you. In the same way that bots, trolls, fake pages, algorithmic gaming can be used to spread fake news, these same tools can be used to assist financial stock pumping fraud, to create filter bubbles and alternative realities, to incite ethnic and racial violence, and countless other misuses.
"Russian disinformation has revealed a dark underbelly of the entire online ecosystem, and this threatens to cheapen American discourse, weaken privacy, erode truth, and undermine our democracy on a previously unimagined scale. Worse, this is only going to get harder as we move into artificial intelligence, use of Deepfake technology," Warner added.