Legal representatives for Facebook, Google and Twitter testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday, as part of the ongoing Congressional investigations into Russia’s alleged efforts to influence the 2016 US election.
Prepared remarks revealed Twitter’s censorship of the hashtags #PodestaEmails and #DNCLeaks, along with criteria for identifying Russian accounts that are questionable to say the least.
Also revealed was Google’s close relationship with politicians and governments and increased support for Defending Digital Democracy, a Harvard-based project staffed by former Pentagon and NSA officials, along with Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager and the CEO of Crowdstrike, a Democratic National Committee contractor behind the accusation that Russia hacked the DNC emails.
Twitter Censored #PodestaEmails
In written testimony, Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean J. Edgett revealed the company worked to stop the hashtag #PodestaEmails being seen by users.
Edgett said many tweets featuring the hashtag were “automated” and said Twitter’s spam detection systems dampened the impact of tweets containing the hashtag.
The “core of the hashtag was propagated by WikiLeaks, whose account sent out a series of 118 original tweets containing variants on the hashtag #PodestaEmails referencing the daily installments of the emails released on the Wikileaks website,” Edgett’s testimony said.
WikiLeaks released the Podesta emails in daily batches in the month leading up to election day on November 6, 2016, meaning it would have tweeted about the releases about four times a day, on average, based on the 118 figure. Twitter said 57,000 of its users posted 426,000 tweets with some form of that hashtag.
“Approximately one quarter (25 percent) of those Tweets received internal tags from our automation detection systems that hid them from searches,” Edgett said.
Twitter also said it “hid” 48 percent of tweets using variants of #DNCLeaks, which referred to the leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee in July 2016. These leaks revealed the DNC’s efforts to push Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate during the primaries and resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz right before the party’s convention.
Less than 4 percent of #PodestaEmails and #DNCLeaks tweets came from potential Russian-linked accounts, Twitter said.
Weeding out ‘Russians’
Twitter also detailed its approach to detecting “Russian-linked” accounts, listing a number of criteria. If a user is “guilty” of a single one, his or her account is considered to be “Russian-linked.”
The damning criteria includes, “whether the account was created in Russia, whether the user registered the account with a Russian phone carrier or a Russian email address, whether the user’s display name contains Cyrillic characters, whether the user frequently Tweets in Russian, and whether the user has logged in from any Russian IP address, even a single time.”
This means anyone that has visited Russia or used a VPN with a Russian server could be deemed Russia-linked.
Edgett did put the reach of those “Russian-linked” accounts into perspective.
“The 1.4 million election-related Tweets that we identified through our retrospective review as generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts constituted less than three quarters of a percent (0.74%) of the overall election-related Tweets on Twitter at the time,” he said, adding that those tweets received “one-third of a percent of impressions” on election tweets.
Google, Clinton and Crowdstrike
Google’s representative Kent Walker told the committee that his company takes threats to democracy very seriously. Google has “offered in-person briefings” to political campaigns, and will “continue working with governments to ensure that our platforms aren’t used for nefarious purposes.”
Walker also announced that Google will increase its “longstanding support” for the Defending Digital Democracy Project, nominally a bipartisan nonprofit initiative aiming to protect political parties from hackers and propaganda.
The project is run by Eric Rosenbach, former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. According to the Belfer Center at Harvard University, which sponsors the project, Rosenbach recruited Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager Robby Mook and Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager Matt Rhoades, to co-chair the project.
Among the project’s advisers is Marc Elias of Perkins Cole, the law firm that has represented Clinton and the DNC and most recently was revealed to have paid for the notorious “Steele Dossier.” Another member of the project’s senior advisory group is Dmitri Alperovitch, CEO of Crowdstrike, the private company hired by the DNC which originated the accusation that Russia hacked into the party’s emails.
Alperovitch is also a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, a think tank associated with anti-Russian reports and partially funded by the US military, NATO, and defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.