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Facebook, Twitter Executives Testify on Capitol Hill; Google Absent

Facebook and Twitter executives are insisting at two congressional hearings Wednesday they are aggressively trying to identify foreign actors who want to inflict damage on the U.S. before the November midterm elections.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told the Senate Intelligence Committee her company is “now blocking millions of attempts to register false accounts each and every day” and is “making progress on fake news.”

She said the company’s recent efforts are “starting to pay off” but added “We cannot stop interference by ourselves.”

Sandberg said Facebook is “working with outside experts, industry partners and governments, including law enforcement, to share information about threats and prevent abuse” to avert further interference in American elections.

Social media companies are under pressure over foreign meddling in U.S. elections, the spread of disinformation, privacy and censorship. Congress has criticized social media companies during the past year as it became clear they were on the front lines during Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and beyond.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted twelve Russians earlier this year on charges stemming from plans to disrupt the 2016 election by creating bogus accounts that circulated divisive issues on social media. The indicted Russians are members of the GRU, a Russian federation intelligence agency.

Twitter Chief executive Officer Jack Dorsey said his company was “unprepared and ill-equipped” for the foreign influence campaigns but said it has intensified its efforts to eliminate phony accounts to prevent “hostile foreign influence.”

“We’re identifying and challenging eight to 10 million suspicious accounts every week and we’re thwarting over a half-million accounts from logging into Twitter every single day.”

Dorsey also said Twitter has continued to find accounts that may be linked to the Russians, noting that 3,843 accounts have been suspended and that the company has seen recent activity.

Dorsey, who will also appear later before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, responded to irate Republicans who contend social media companies have been biased against conservatives. Dorsey’s said Twitter does not consider political ideology when making decisions.

“Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules,” he said.

Dorsey said Twitter uses “behavioral signals” that can help identify spam and abuse.

Dorsey’s prepared testimony also says Twitter has continued to find accounts that may be linked to the Russians, saying 3,843 accounts have been suspended.He also says the company has seen recent activity.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner said at the hearing the social media giants “were caught flat-footed by the brazen attacks on our election” and expressed doubt the companies confront the problem.

“I’m skeptical that, ultimately, you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own,” Warner said. “Congress is going to have to take action here.”

While Congress has forced social media companies during the past year to focus more on the Russian interference issue, it took several months last year for Facebook and Twitter to acknowledge they had been manipulated.

Many social media companies have made policy changes that caught and banned numerous malicious accounts during the past year.But free services that find out as much about users as possible remain unchanged, prompting critics to say social media companies will continue to contend with bad actors manipulating their systems unless they change.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged in a Washington Post Op-ed Tuesday his company found out too late in 2016 there were “foreign actors running coordinated campaigns to interfere with America’s democratic process.”

He said the company has since made improvements such as “finding and removing fake accounts” and misinformation.

But Zuckerberg warned Facebook and other social media companies face “sophisticated, well-funded adversaries who are getting smarter over time, too. It’s an arms race, and it will take the combined forces of the U.S. private and public sectors to protect America’s democracy from outside interference.”

Over the past 12 months, three-fourths of all Facebook users either adjusted their privacy settings, taken weeks-long or longer breaks from the platform or deleted their Facebook app from their cell phones, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The survey was conducted from May 19 through June 11, after revelations that the former consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had gathered data on tens of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge.

Many social media companies have made policy changes that caught and banned numerous malicious accounts during the past year. But free services that find out as much about users as possible remain unchanged, prompting critics to say social media companies will continue to contend with bad actors manipulating their systems unless they change.

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