It’s been four months since lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter were grilled publicly in front of three congressional committees on how exactly Russian operatives used their companies to spread divisive content and misinformation during and after the 2016 campaign, what the companies were aware of and when, and why they didn’t do more to stop it.
A lot came out at those hearings, including copies of some of the ads that were purchased on the platforms and posts that the Kremlin-backed troll accounts made, as well as more precise figures about how many people interacted with the propaganda effort. But what the executives said didn’t satisfy the elected officials, many of whom still have questions, especially as the midterm elections approach, about whether these companies have actually figured out how to make sure foreign agents aren’t using their platforms to meddle in U.S. elections. Now senators from both parties are insisting that instead of sending lawyers—who Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said this week are experts at “dodging and bobbing and weaving” their way through tough questions—the world’s major internet companies should finally send their CEOs to Capitol Hill.
“This is not a problem that’s going to be swept under the rug or is going to go away,” Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Bloomberg. “If anything, it’s increasing. I don’t want to hear from the lawyers,” he said. “The CEOs owe an obligation.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, agreed that hearing from the CEOs of these companies “would be enlightening.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who is also on the Intelligence Committee, agreed that the companies should send a “high-ranking official” for another hearing, according to Bloomberg. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about whether the tech companies could have taken precautions sooner and identified Russian influence much sooner than they did,” she said. The bipartisan agreement that these tech companies have much more explaining to do—and need to send their highest executives to do it—is a rare showing of unity in an otherwise extremely polarized political climate.
The interest in getting more information on how these companies left the doors open for voter manipulation across both sides of the aisle gets to the heart of why Russian election meddling is so troubling: If powerful foreign adversaries are working to sway American voters, it doesn’t matter what team you’re on. The health of U.S. elections is at risk. It’s expensive enough to run a campaign against an opposing candidate and U.S. interest groups; adding a massive Russian troll operation to the mix only tangles things further. Russian trolls, after all, weren’t merely working to secure Trump’s presidential win, though that was clearly their focus. They were trying to stir discord and distrust from the far edges of America’s most divisive political issues.
Warner, along with Klobuchar and McCain, a Republican from Arizona, together proposed legislation last year that would require political ads that run online to include information about who pays for them, a move that the Federal Election Commission is also considering, although with fewer requirements than the Senate bill would put in place.
In an indictment last month, Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed charges against 13 Russian nationals and the Internet Research Agency, the anodyne name of the St. Petersburg social media operation that was churning out memes and creating fake accounts to meddle in the 2016 election—a scandal we now know a lot about, even as we brace for a potential repeat this fall. If they bear any responsibility, it makes sense that the American companies that enabled and amplified the foreign election meddling would prefer for their lawyers to speak on their behalf when Congress calls. But Congress would rather know what leadership at the massive social media companies did and didn’t do to allow this, and what they’re going to do to prevent it from happening again—all questions the CEOs from Facebook, Google, and Twitter are best equipped to answer themselves.