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Lawmakers Grill Tech Firms On Russia's Use Of Social Media To Influence 2016 Election


Today, senators on Capitol Hill are digging into a big question - how much did Russia use social media to influence a presidential election in this country? This is an issue we have been covering on NPR all week long. Now, this morning, lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter have been grilled by members of the Senate intelligence committee. They'll likely face the same in the House intelligence committee later this afternoon. NPR's Aarti Shahani is covering all of this. She's in our studios in Washington. Hey, Aarti.


GREENE: So I guess the big question on my mind is are senators actually learning anything about what Russia was able to pull off here using U.S. tech firms?

SHAHANI: So this is a really key point. The hearing so far is very focused on establishing the basics, and it is not a simple story line, OK? It's not Russian operatives with a hundred thousand dollars delivered the election the President Trump, right?

GREENE: (Laughter) Well, that would be straight and easy. We could all get out of here.

SHAHANI: Right, right. So in his opening remarks, Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, you know, he really hit that point that from what we know so far the three states most targeted by the foreign ads were Maryland, Missouri and New York. None of them are swing states. And again, from what they know, more of the geographically targeted ads they ran in 2015, not 2016, which isn't what you'd expect. You'd expect a ramp up to November, right?

GREENE: Yeah, certainly, if you're trying to influence an election, you would not expect it to be...

SHAHANI: To go down.

GREENE: ...At its height in 2015.

SHAHANI: Correct, correct.


SHAHANI: Wrong direction.

GREENE: Yeah. You keep emphasizing from what they know. I mean, what - explain that because what don't we know? It sounds like a lot.

SHAHANI: So much. I mean, that's my skepticism and the senators' too, you know, what really happened, the impact, the numbers? It's a moving target. Several weeks ago, a Facebook security chief said that Russian-linked accounts spent $100,000 total, OK? Then in advance of yesterday's hearing, the company says there were 80,000 ads that reached 126 million people, which, you know, it just sounds like a far bigger footprint.


SHAHANI: And then it also turns out 16 million people were reached on Instagram, which Facebook also owns. So, you know, will the size get bigger? It could. And that's a key point Senator Mark Warner raised, a Democrat from Virginia. Warner is someone who made a fortune as a tech investor, OK? He knows. And let's have a listen to his opening remarks.


MARK WARNER: Someone who deeply respects the tech industry and who was involved in that industry for more than 20 years, it's taken me quite a bit of time - and I'm still learning - to truly understand the nature of this threat. Even I struggled to keep up with the language and the mechanics, the difference between bots, trolls and fake accounts, how they generate likes, tweets and shares.

SHAHANI: You know, see - you hear that from someone who is a tech insider and you figure they've got a lot of homework to do.

GREENE: It sounds that way. And Senator Warner basically saying you're not going to get anything past me because I know this world. Has the committee looked at any specific political ads to get an idea of what was really happening, or are they just focusing on numbers?

SHAHANI: Yeah, no, David, this is key. So Senator Burr talked about two Facebook groups associated with the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll group based in Saint Petersburg. The first group called the Heart of Texas has - it had 250,000 followers. It promoted protests and causes and anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments. Now, a second group called United Muslims of America, it had 328,000 followers and claimed to support pro-Islamic themes - tagline is I'm Muslim and I'm proud. Now, both of these groups organized rallies - one anti-Muslim, one pro-Muslim - at the same time and same place in front of an Islamic center in Houston. So what does that tell us? Two things. First of all, it's not just digital. There is a straight line from online to real world.


SHAHANI: And, you know, it's rabble-rousing.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thanks, Aarti.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.