We’ve been having a conversation about foreign interference in our elections for more than two years now. Tech companies have offered proof of continued efforts to interfere in November’s US midterm elections. It feels like this may never end.
In fact, says California Rep. Adam Schiff, it likely won’t.
Foreign governments are “never going to stop trying to influence us. You’re never going to be able to completely eradicate that content,” said Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that investigated Russian interference in US elections.
What can change is how it spreads, he said. “You can do a lot to suppress it. You can do a lot to keep it within reasonable bounds.”
That’s why Schiff and other lawmakers have begun pressing tech companies to devote more resources — time, money, people — to solving these issues. When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, they discussed hiring plans and how they use humans and computers to fight bad behavior on their sites.
“We’re investing heavily in people and technology to keep our community safe and keep our services secure,” Sandberg said.
Dorsey touted early successes with its detection systems. “We are now removing 214 percent more accounts year over year for violating our platform manipulation policies,” he said. That number amounted to as many as 10 million accounts per week.
Those are all positive things, Schiff said. But the tech industry could do so much more.
“We can suppress foreign interference and meddling and social media to where it’s not going to be a potentially determinative factor in elections,” he said. “But it’s gonna require a lot more attention and resources and focus.”
By resources, he means people. Bodies.
“The size of the business that the companies do is so disproportionate to the number of their employees that certain tasks that you require human eyes on, that at the end of the day simply can’t be automated, at least not yet,” he said. “One question, which is a really difficult one, is what should their responsibility be in terms of content? And then the other is how do we get them to devote the resources in that agreed-upon area when they’re not economically incentivize to do so. It’s really tough.”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation with the congressman after Sandberg’s and Dorsey’s testimonies concluded this week.
Over the past couple months, the tech industry has banned hundreds of accounts it says are part of election influence campaigns. Is it enough?
Schiff: It moves the needle a bit. It’s good to know and good to see that the tech companies are taking some action and that they have identified fake pages, and they’ve identified an effort to divide us once again, and use social media to pit Americans against one another on racial grounds.
But you do get the sense that what we’re seeing is still merely the tip of the iceberg, that it will take a much more concerted and resourced effort to really ferret out most of this effort and foreign malevolent influence.
What would you like to see happen that would make you feel like the tech companies are more on it?
Schiff: I know, certainly, our efforts to get information from the technology companies are often very difficult and fraught and time-consuming. And there is a resistance for whatever reason.
You can also see how sometimes one tech company will wait to make any public disclosure until another tech company has. So, Facebook makes a disclosure. And then Twitter says, “Oh, yes, we’ve seen those accounts active on our platform as well.”
It’s as if they want to disclose the minimum amount necessary to fend off regulation or create the public perception that they’re addressing the problem. But I’ve yet to get the real confidence that I would like that they’re aggressively going after this, they’re ready to share with the public, they’re ready to notify their users.
I’m not confident they’re ready to re-examine some of their assumptions about whether they can really treat their platforms as a bulletin board on which anyone can post anything, and in the interest of free speech, they have no obligation to really police fraudulent content or malicious content, or if they do it’s a minimal character compared to the size of the task.
Has there been any effort from the tech companies to help bring Congress in? We talked before about lawmakers’ lack of knowledge and understanding of technology. Has the tech industry’s communication stepped up? Are they bringing members to their campuses and teaching them at all?
Schiff: I think that has been happening, I don’t know that there’s been a real uptick in it. There’s always been that kind of interaction between members in the Silicon Valley.
But I don’t see a real appreciable change from a year ago in the sense that it was hard and time-consuming for us to get all the advertising for Facebook, and then to get them to scrub it for personally identifiable information so we could make it publicly available. We have the organic content now, but it’s not been scrubbed. So we can’t release it.
And given how laborious it was to get them to scrub just the commercials, which are a fraction of the organic content, we can tell it’s going to take a long time before we can share that with the public.
I think if someone like Sheryl Sandberg were sitting here with us, she’d say Facebook is trying its best.
Schiff: Given the size of these companies, given the resources at their command, where there’s a will, there’s a way. They certainly made that clear, where there’s an economic incentive aligned, what they’re able to do in terms of how their technologies perform, and what services they can offer, and how they’re able to use data to find other ways of connecting people. So when it’s aligned with economic interest, they’re very capable.
I think they’re much more capable of tackling this problem than we’ve seen. It’s not necessarily alignment with their economic interest and that may be the challenge.
When we had our first hearing in the House Intelligence Committee, they all sent their lawyers. That tells you something about the perspective of these companies. They view it as a legal problem, and that is not the priority. I don’t think it should be anyway.
And I think you saw yesterday with the empty seat, the nonexistent Google witness, the reluctance to appear before Congress. There are a lot of very tough questions that need to be asked and need to be answered.
After this week, are we closer to finding a solution?
Schiff: I think we’re closer to the right questions to ask. So we’re still closer to the beginning of than the end of this process.
On the issue of foreign intervention and foreign influence, we’re further along on the broader issues affecting the technologies. But even there, with two months to go until the midterm, we’re not nearly as far as we should be having gone through what we did in 2016.
So I think we’re still playing catchup in regards to the most imminent challenge. And with respect to everything else, I think we’re still in our infancy.
Is anything actually going to happen?
Schiff: If you bet on inaction in Congress, you’re gonna win most the time.
But I would expect that what we’ll see, I think what would be desirable, would be more focused hearings on specific issues where you can bring in a range of people.
The field is so broad that the hearings that we had yesterday were necessarily kind of a survey of the issues. It would be useful just to have a hearing on, for example, bots. What do we do about bots? How are they being used? What are the beneficial uses of bots, what are the malicious uses? What are the domestic uses and foreign uses? Should we regulate this in some way?
That may arm us with enough information on that particular issue to start to look at it and say, “OK, well, we’re gonna do something, maybe it should be along these lines.”
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