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Facebook Says It's Making Strides In Rooting Out Malicious Activity At Senate Hearing


Two top technology executives were on Capitol Hill today. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. They discussed what their companies are doing to try to prevent foreign adversaries including Russia from using social media to manipulate Americans and influence elections. NPR's Ryan Lucas has been following this hearing and is here in the studio to tell us more. Hi, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: This hearing comes two months before the midterm elections. So what did Sandberg and Dorsey say about the way Facebook and Twitter are responding to foreign influence campaigns on their platforms?

LUCAS: Well, social media companies were slow to respond in the past to how big of a problem this actually is. You may recall that Facebook's own Mark Zuckerberg of course publicly dismissed the idea that Russia had used Facebook to sow discord, to run ads, to influence Americans back in the 2016 election. Republicans and Democrats heavily criticized social media companies for what they described as a very kind of lax response to this threat. And they took aim at Google today for refusing to send its top executive to the hearing. They were invited. Google did not come. There was an empty chair instead.

That aside, the tune that we're hearing from social media companies has changed a lot. Sandberg, for example, said today that Facebook didn't grasp how Russia was manipulating Facebook back in 2016 to sow discord. Here's a bit of what she had to say.


SHERYL SANDBERG: We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That is on us. This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love.

LUCAS: Now, we've heard similar mea culpas from Facebook before. Now, with Twitter, Dorsey acknowledged that it had been manipulated, that the company was slow to realize the immensity of the problem. And both Dorsey and Sandberg both said that their companies have taken steps to address this issue.

SHAPIRO: Taken steps like what?

LUCAS: Well, just in the past few months, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft as well - they have all detected and taken down fake pages or accounts or sites that were pushing disinformation or engaged in some other malicious activity. Some of those accounts were linked to Russia. In one case, they were tied to Iran.

Now, in terms of the nitty-gritty on how these companies are trying to combat the problem, Sandberg says that Facebook now has 20,000 people working on safety and security. That's double the previous number. She says the company can review reports in 50 languages. It can do that 24 hours a day. And she says that Facebook is using better artificial intelligence to help identify abuse, but this is really a cat-and-mouse game here. Facebook and Twitter say that while they're getting better at picking up patterns and identifying bad actors, that foreign adversaries at the same time are adapting to what they're doing to try to stay one step ahead of the game.

SHAPIRO: Is there a sense that one side or the other is winning? I mean, you said lawmakers applauded some of the work that these social media companies are doing. Do they seem to be ahead?

LUCAS: No, not really. The fact that we're aware of these disinformation operations, that we're talking about them, that you and I are sitting here talking about them - that's progress. But this is a very complicated issue. This is the sort of abuse and - this sort of abuse and manipulation of social media raises questions about how these companies operate and about their business model. So it's tough to have a particularly rosy outlook on this. Here's how the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr, put it today.


RICHARD BURR: Without question, positive things are happening. The collaboration, dedication and resources and demonstrate willingness to work with us are critical. But clearly this problem's not going away, not even sure it's trending in the right direction.

LUCAS: And on that last point that Burr made - remember; top national security officials, including director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, they've warned that Russia continues to target U.S. elections through disinformation. And that, of course, is a concern because we have midterm elections, as you said, in two months.

SHAPIRO: So just briefly, what other steps might be in store?

LUCAS: Well, there was talk today of Congress possibly stepping in with regulation. It's unclear at this point what form that might take, whether it will indeed happen. But the top Democrat on the committee, Mark Warner, he warned that what he called the Wild West of social media is coming to an end.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.