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Facebook, Twitter, Google Facing Tough Questions From Congressional Probes

U.S. investigators have turned up thousands of examples of Russian-linked "trolls" and automated "bots" being used to spread fake news on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. (illustrative photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. lawmakers are digging deep into the activities of the world's largest social media and Internet companies, amid growing concerns that they may have played an important role in Russia's efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Top executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 31 as well as the Senate and House intelligence committees on November 1.

All three are playing leading roles in investigating the conclusions that were reached by the U.S. intelligence community and released in a report in January. That report accused Moscow of orchestrating a hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at swaying last year's election.

In the months since that report, investigations by media outlets and congressional investigators have turned up thousands of examples of Russian-linked "trolls" and automated "bots" being used to spread fake news.

On October 30, ahead of the congressional hearings, Facebook disclosed that it had found 80,000 posts published by Russia-based operatives that were aimed at swaying U.S. voters. The company also said about 126 million Americans may have viewed those posts over a two-year period.

Twitter, meanwhile, said in written testimony released before the hearings that it had found far more accounts linked to the same Russian operatives, working with an organization known as the Internet Research Agency.

Exceeding Previous Estimates

The disclosures shows that Russian efforts to influence political opinion in the United States far exceeded the previous estimate.

Facebook said most of the posts, which could have been viewed by voters over Facebook's news feeds or through endorsements and "likes" by other Facebook users, focused on divisive social and political messages such as race relations.

The leading social network, which has 2 billion monthly users worldwide and at least 214 million in the United States alone, said that such "organic" posts that appear in users' news feeds are distinct from more than 3,000 advertisements linked to the Russian agency that Facebook previously disclosed and turned over to congressional committees.

The ads -- many of which also focused on divisive social issues such as race and immigration -- directed people to click the advertiser's pages, where they could then like or share its material.

"These actions run counter to Facebook's mission of building community and everything we stand for. And we are determined to do everything we can to address this new threat," Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said in his written testimony.

Automated Tweets

Twitter said it found 2,752 accounts connected with the Internet Research Agency and it has suspended all of them and given the account names to congressional investigators.

The Russia-linked accounts put out 1.4 million election-related tweets from September 2016 through November 15, 2016, nearly half of them automated, the company said.

The company also found nine Russian accounts that bought ads, most of which came from RT, the state-funded news service formerly known as Russia Today. Twitter said last week it would no longer accept ads from RT and Sputnik, another Russian state news outlet.

"State-sanctioned manipulation of elections by sophisticated foreign actors is a new challenge for us -- and one that we are determined to meet," Twitter officials said in written testimony.

Google, the world's largest Internet search engine, announced in a blog post that it found evidence of "limited" misuse of its services by the Russian group, as well as some YouTube channels that were likely backed by Russian agents.

It said that two accounts linked to the Russian group spent $4,700 on ads on its platforms during the 2016 election.

Google said it also found 18 YouTube channels that were likely backed by Russian agents. Those channels hosted 1,108 videos with 43 hours of material, although they racked up just 309,000 views in the United States between June 2015 and November 2016, it said.

"While we have found only limited activity on our services, we will continue to work to prevent all of it, because there is no amount of interference that is acceptable," Google said in the blog post.

With reporting by AP