Facebook couldn’t answer this one simple question from Senator Mark Warner

Facebook couldn’t answer this one simple question from Senator Mark Warner
[Photo: courtesy of PBS NewsHour]

Today, general counsels from Facebook, Twitter, and Google sat before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify about social media influence during the 2016 elections. Unsurprisingly, Russia took center stage. The senators grilled the tech companies’ top lawyers about what they are doing to stop foreign actors from using social platforms to influence the American populace.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) had one specific and simple question for Facebook’s Colin Stretch. He wanted to know about 30,000 fake accounts Facebook discovered earlier this year that were trying to influence the French election. At the time, Facebook bragged that it was able to discover these accounts and swiftly took them down. Warner wanted to know if Facebook, after discovering these accounts, cross-checked to see if these same accounts also tried to tamper with the U.S. election.

Your leadership bragged about how proactively you were in the French election process,” said Warner, “Did you check those accounts [with the U.S. election]?”

Stretch couldn’t give a straight answer. “The system that ran to take down those accounts–which were fake accounts of all type and any purpose–is now active worldwide,” he said. Warner wasn’t amused. “Just answer my question,” he said. “Have you reviewed the accounts you took down in France that were Russian-related to see if they played any role in the American election?” 

Once again, Facebook couldn’t answer. The lawyer pleaded, “I’m trying to answer the question,” while trying to explain around Warner’s query. The answer Stretch attempted to give was that the senator’s question could not be so simply answered. This is a frequent tactic used by technology companies asked about their practices; they obfuscate simple inquiries. Stretch seemed to be saying that these sorts of questions do not take into account the complexity of how the back-end works—making an easy answer impossible.

Warner shot back, “just yes or no.” Stretch said, “Yes, we are looking–and have looked–at every possible indication of Russian activity in the 2016 election and that includes any evidence we’ve uncovered from those 30 accounts as well as others.”

While closer to what Warner was getting at, it still didn’t answer the question. Finally, Stretch pledged to check with his company to see if Facebook cross-checked the French fake account database. And the senator wasn’t happy: “I find this answer very disappointing,” he said.

Update: Facebook’s CSO Alex Stamos tweeted a clarification about this line of questioning. While his answer is still quite convoluted, he wrote that “all of the accounts disabled automatically are still included in our searches for organized disinformation actors like the Internet Research Agency.”