Twitter Blasted for ‘Inadequate’ Response to Suspicious Activity During Election

A top Senate Democrat blasted Twitter Inc. for a “deeply disappointing” presentation into suspicious Russian activity on its network during the 2016 U.S. election as the company disclosed some of its findings for the first time.

"Their response was frankly inadequate on almost every level," Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee told reporters Thursday. “There is a lot more work they have to do.”

Twitter said in a blog post Thursday it disabled 22 accounts after reviewing information from Facebook Inc. showing connections to 450 bogus accounts on that company’s social network. From those listings, Twitter said it found an additional 179 related or linked accounts and took action on the ones that violated its rules. The San Francisco-based company also said it is taking steps to prevent efforts to manipulate its network.

Company representatives met with both House and Senate intelligence panels behind closed doors on Thursday. 

"It is clear that Twitter has significant forensic work to do to understand the depth and breadth of Russian activity during the campaign," Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House panel, said in a statement. "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."

Warner said that Twitter’s presentation appeared mostly derived from Facebook’s previous disclosures, showing “an enormous lack of understanding on the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again, begs many more questions."

Ad Spending

Social-media companies are facing growing outrage over their inability to prevent foreign tampering in the U.S. democratic process. Investigators from the U.S. House and Senate intelligence panels are focusing on the role of Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections. Executives from those companies were asked to appear at a public hearing before the Senate committee Nov. 1, while the House panel requested them next month, according to aides from both committees.

Twitter said it shared a roundup of advertisements by RT, a TV network funded by the Russian government that was formerly known as Russia Today. RT spent $274,100 in U.S. ads in 2016, according to Twitter, which said it was still reviewing its internal data. U.S. intelligence agencies have said that RT played a role in Russia’s attempts to meddle in the election.

“This is an ongoing process and we will continue to collaborate with investigators,” the company said in its statement.

How Russia’s Meddling Became Facebook’s Problem: QuickTake Q&A

During the election campaign, Twitter says it learned of tweets saying people could cast votes for Hillary Clinton via text message. It says it tweeted reminders that votes couldn’t be cast that way. Accounts associated with that activity didn’t have an “obvious Russian origin” but some appeared to have been automated, according to Twitter.

“We have shared examples of the content of these removed tweets with congressional investigators,” according to the company.

Outside research firms have found deep Russia links to Twitter’s platform. Cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. discovered thousands of fake accounts linked to Russia that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. It found that on election day, one group of Twitter bots sent out the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats more than 1,700 times. Suspected Russian bots even caused the hashtag #HillaryDown to start trending.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the Washington-based German Marshall Fund, found about 600 accounts linked to Russian influence operations on Twitter, just days before the company was due to brief lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

‘Spammy’ Activity

In the coming months, Twitter said it would make changes to how it responds to “spammy or suspicious activity.” That includes new enforcement for suspicious logons and tweets, and reducing the amount of time suspect accounts remain visible. The statement didn’t elaborate on how the enforcement would work.

“These are not meant to be definitive solutions,” according to the company. “We’ve been fighting against these issues for years, and as long as there are people trying to manipulate Twitter, we will be working hard to stop them.”

Facebook has disclosed that Russians appeared to have bought about $100,000 in election-related advertising last year, and the company is sharing information on more than 3,000 ads with investigators. Some House Democrats are asking for more transparency from social-media companies, which are capturing a growing portion of political advertising in the U.S. TV stations, cable and satellite companies, and radio stations all have to keep records of and disclose who pays for political messages on their platforms, including how much they paid and when the ads aired. Thus far, congress has taken a more hands-off approach to the internet.

For more on Russian interference in the U.S. election, check out the podcast:

“Social-media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly-detailed information,” John Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings and other Democrats wrote in a letter to the Federal Elections Commission last week. “As we have seen, the low cost of reaching these users equips hostile foreign actors with a powerful new tool for disruption of our democratic process.”

Schiff said he hopes to arrange another meeting between lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee and Twitter officials soon. In an interview Schiff said that he wants Twitter officials to explain what kind of internal investigation the company conducted. He said he also wants to know the extent of Russia’s use of Twitter and how much of the content was directed by bots.

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