US Lawmaker calls for RT YouTube ban during Russia hearing
House Intelligence Committee members accusing RT of being “fake news” were only able to point to accurate and widely reported stories on the network, during a hearing with social media executives on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
‘An arm of our adversary’
At a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) put RT in her crosshairs, asking Kent Walker, the general counsel at Google, why his company has not yet banned RT from YouTube.
Walker said that Google “carefully” reviewed RT’s history on the social media platform and said they have “not found violations of our policies against hate speech and incitement to violence and the like.”
“It’s a propaganda machine, Mr. Walker,” Speier interjected. “The Intelligence Community - all 17 agencies - says it’s an arm of one of our adversaries. I would like for you to take that back to your executives and rethink continuing to have it on your platform.”
Walker responded that Google is looking into ways to increase transparency for “all government-funded sources of information.”
However, when Walker would not agree to the lawmaker’s wishes, Speier asked him if Google would at least consider putting a disclaimer on RT’s YouTube page that would say: “the Intelligence Community in the United States believes it’s an arm of our adversary, Russia.”
Walker said that they would “take a look at all forms of transparency.”
Speier also claimed that during the 2016 election, President Donald Trump’s campaign was “mimicking” stories from RT. Specifically, she referenced a video from CNN that was posted to Trump’s Twitter account on August 31, 2016. The tweet featured Trump speaking before a crowd and questioning former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's “strength and stamina.”
Speier said RT “hammered” the same message, comparing Trump’s tweet to a video posted to RT’s Twitter account, which featured footage of Clinton stumbling at the 9/11 memorial on September 11, 2016. Clinton’s campaign repeatedly changed its story as to the circumstances of Clinton’s fall at the time.
‘Russians don't care’
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) also appeared to be grasping at straws during the hearing when he called out RT for reporting an event that was covered by other major news agencies.
Swalwell pointed to a July 2016 report about Ted Cruz being booed at the Republican National Convention (RNC) and suggested that the factual story, which was widely reported, could somehow be interpreted as election meddling or “propaganda.”
Referencing a large poster board display of an RT tweet promoting the story, Swalwell concluded that “if this interference campaign has taught us anything, it's that the Russians don't care.”
“They're not pro-Republican, they're not anti-Democrat, they're just pro-Russian," Swalwell said, warning his Republican colleagues that they could be targeted in the next election.
Swalwell also asked if RT made any money on the ads they posted.
“The same is true beyond the internet, of course, because RT is featured on cable stations, satellite stations, hotel television networks, they buy advertising in newspapers, magazines, airports, etc,” Walker said.
Walker then went on to explain that the money comes from advertisers and Google gets a small percentage of that money while the majority goes to the publisher.
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama) directed most of her questions to Facebook, suggesting that it should have been a “red flag” that some of the ads in question were paid for in Russian rubles.
In response, Colin Stretch, the general counsel at Facebook, said that all ads on the social media platform go through “a combination of automated and manual review.”
Sewell, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, interrupted Stretch at that point, seemingly distracted from the official purpose of the hearing.
Instead of pursuing a line of questioning about Russia, Sewell asked who vets material posted on Facebook and if they are a “diverse group of people.”
Stretch explained that Facebook has vetters speaking a “number of languages” based “around the globe” adding that the company is “committed to building a workforce that is as diverse as the community we serve.”
“With all due respect, I have to stop you there,” Sewell interrupted again. “I don't know if you know exactly how many racially diverse workforce that you have, what the percentage is, but I can tell you if you don't know. It's very low.”
Sewell went on to say that Facebook's overall racial ethnicity was poor, with black employees making up 8.8 percent of the total workforce and only 2.3 percent of the leadership roles.
Later in the hearing, Sewell asked all three companies if they would agree with legislation that would require them to add a disclosure of who paid for any given ad.
The executives from all three companies responded by saying they were in agreement with the "general direction" of that notion, to which the other two companies agreed.
In October, lawmakers introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would subject social media outlets to the same transparency and disclosure laws as television and radio ads.
Wait, how do Facebook ads work?
When Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) took the floor, he asked how each of the companies helped RT target the audience that would see their ads.
Sean Edgett, the acting general counsel at Twitter, said the company did not have much of an interaction with RT and most of the ads were promoted content.
“So, they take a tweet of a news story and they promote it so that it is seen by users who don't follow them and potentially want to drive viewership to their own platform or then have them follow back,” Edgett explained.
Edgett went on to explain that RT used “very general targeting,” which included US citizens who follow other media or news organizations. He added that the RT en Español account specifically targets users in California and Florida.
When asked if Facebook was aiding RT, Stretch said that all of the ads that the company has released to the committee were bought through their “self-serve ad platform," adding that there was "no human interaction with any of the advertisers."