Democrats rebuke Twitter for ‘frankly inadequate’ response to Russian meddling

Twitter has suspended 201 accounts tied to Russian-linked sources that posted political ads on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election, officials from the social media giant told congressional investigators on Thursday.

Top Democrats, however, said they were disappointed by Twitter’s briefing to congressional investigators and questioned the company’s commitment to investigating Russian use of its platform to influence the US vote.

Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, who was among those briefed, said Twitter displayed an “enormous lack of understanding” and called its presentation to his panel “frankly inadequate on almost every level”.

Warner accused Twitter of failing to grasp “how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions and again begs many more questions than they offered”.

“There is a lot more work they have to do,” he told reporters on Thursday.

The US intelligence community has concluded that Russia meddled in the election to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances and boost those of Donald Trump. Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook are under mounting pressure from Congress and the public to provide more information about the spread of Russian propaganda and disinformation on their platforms.

Twitter detailed the meetings with Capitol Hill staffers in a blogpost published on Thursday. The closed-door briefings followed a similar briefing involving Facebook, which revealed earlier this month that it sold more than 3,000 election ads linked to a Russian agency. Facebook has said it will provide Congress with copies of those ads as well as payment information and who the ads targeted.

Congressman Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, noted that Twitter’s findings appeared to be based on Facebook’s disclosures and said the company still had “significant work to do to understand the depth and breadth of Russian activity during the campaign”.

“This additional analysis will require a far more robust investigation into how Russian actors used their platform as a part of their active measures campaign and whether any of the targeting on Twitter suggests the possibility of assistance or collusion with any US persons,” Schiff said.

The suspended Twitter accounts were tied to the 470 Russia-linked accounts and pages that Facebook removed after they promoted messages intended to amplify divisive social issues such as gun control, race relations and immigration – all of which were central to Trump’s campaign.

Twitter said it identified 22 accounts that corresponded with the ones shared by Facebook as part of its review. Twitter then found an additional 179 accounts “related or linked” to those accounts, it said.

Twitter also identified three accounts linked to the news site RT, formerly Russia Today, that spent $274,100 on sponsored tweets in 2016. The blogpost noted that the intelligence officials have linked the news network to the Kremlin.

“Neither the original accounts shared by Facebook, nor the additional related accounts we identified, were registered as advertisers on Twitter,” the blogpost said. “However, we continue to investigate these issues, and will take action on anything that violates our terms of service.”

Facebook’s findings entangled both social media companies in the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, raising calls for increased transparency around political advertising on social media platforms. Twitter acknowledged such demands and on Thursday said it would examine its current guidelines with “an eye to improving them”.

Facebook has faced the harshest scrutiny so far. Its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, on Wednesday apologized for initially dismissing the notion that fake news on Facebook had influenced the election as a “pretty crazy idea”.

“Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post responding to a claim by the president that the platform is “anti-Trump”. “This is too important an issue to be dismissive.

The Senate and House committees are trying to understand what companies could have done to stem Russian attempts to spread fake news stories and misinformation.

The House intelligence committee announced on Wednesday that it planned to hold an open hearing with the tech companies next month. A Senate aide confirmed that Twitter, Facebook and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have been invited to testify publicly before the Senate intelligence committee on 1 November.

Twitter had previously been relatively quiet on the subject. In a June blogpost, its vice-president of public policy, Colin Crowell, wrote: “Twitter’s open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information.

“This is important because we cannot distinguish whether every single Tweet from every person is truthful or not. We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth.”

A spokeswoman for Twitter declined to respond to the criticism over Thursday’s briefing, directing the Guardian to the blog post outlining their presentation to congressional investigators. In the post, Twitter said the presentation covered only the company’s “initial findings” and committed to “continue to work with official inquiries into these isssues, and to share updates publicly as we are able”.

The social media company also described a series of changes it intends to roll out in the coming weeks and months to more quickly detect and respond to suspicious activity on its platform. The changes, however, are not meant to be “definitive solutions”, Twitter said.


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