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Opening Statement of Sen. Mark Warner

Vice Chairman, Senate Intelligence Committee

Open Hearing on Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms

September 5, 2018




***Read Sen. Warner’s white paper on social media***


WASHINGTON — Today U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, will participate in an open hearing with Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and Jack Dorsey, Chief Executive Officer of Twitter Inc., on ways they are working to ensure their platforms are ready – or not—to tackle foreign influence operations ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. After Russia’s unprecedented attack on our elections, Sen. Warner will have the opportunity to hear directly from Facebook and Twitter on ways Congress can better adapt our laws with the changing nature of technology as outlined in his social media white paper

In October, Sen. Warner – along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John McCain (R-AZ) – introduced the Honest Ads Actto help prevent foreign interference in elections and improve the transparency of online political advertisements. In July, Sen. Warner released a set of policy proposals to spark a long overdue discussion on ways to rein in big tech and protect users on social media against misinformation and disinformation campaigns.


Below are Vice Chairman Warner’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery:


As the Chairman has pointed out, today is an important public discussion.  I’m pleased that both Facebook and Twitter have sent their company’s top leadership to address some of these critical public policy challenges today.  I look forward to a constructive engagement.  


I’m deeply disappointed that Google – one of the most influential digital platforms in the world – chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee. 


I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered.  From Google Search, which continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies….To YouTube, where Russian-backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds of divisive videos….To Gmail, where state-sponsored operatives attempt countless hacking attempts, Google has an immense responsibility in this space.  Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion.


For the two companies that have chosen to constructively engage today and to publicly answer some of these difficult questions, thank you. 


It would be an understatement to say that much has changed in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. campaign.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that serious mistakes were made by both Facebook and Twitter.  You, like the U.S. government, were caught flat-footed by the brazen attacks on our election.  Even after the election, you were reluctant to admit there was a problem. 


It was the pressure that was brought to bear by this Committee that led Facebook, Twitter, and Google to uncover the malicious activities of the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency on their platforms.


Each of you have come a long way with respect to recognizing the threat.  We have seen important action by your companies to make political advertising more transparent by complying with the terms Senator Klobuchar and I put forward in the Honest Ads Act.  In addition, since last September, you have identified and removed some bad actors from your platforms.  


The bad news, I’m afraid, is that there is a lot of work still to do.  And I’m skeptical that, ultimately, you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own.  Congress is going to have to take action here.   


First, on the disinformation front: Russia has not stopped.  Russian-linked information warfare exists today on your platforms.  Just recently, we saw the two of you act to take down suspected Russian operations.  Microsoft also uncovered Russian attempts to hack political organizations and potentially several political campaigns.  The Russians also continue to infiltrate and manipulate American social media to hijack the national conversation. 


You’ve gotten better, and I’m pleased to see you’ve begun to take action, but the Russians are getting better as well.  They have become harder to track.  Worse, now that the Russian playbook is out there, other adversaries, like Iran, have joined the fray.  


But foreign-backed disinformation campaigns represent just a fraction of the challenge before you.  In the same way that bots, trolls, fake pages, and algorithm-gaming can be used to spread fake news, these same tools can be used to assist financial stock-pumping fraud, to create filter bubbles and alternative realities, to incite ethnic and racial violence, and countless other misuses.  Imagine the damage to markets if forged communications from the Fed Chairman were leaked online.  


Or, consider the price of a Fortune 500 company’s stock if a dishonest short-seller was able to spread false information about that company’s CEO – or the effects of its products -- rapidly online?    


Russian disinformation has revealed a dark underbelly of the entire online ecosystem.  And this threatens to cheapen American discourse, weaken privacy, erode truth, and undermine our democracy on a previously unimagined scale.   


Worse still, this is only going to get harder with new advances in technology and artificial intelligence, like deepfakes.  During the 2016 election, the Russians demonstrated how bad actors can effectively marry offensive cyber operations, including hacking, with information operations.  We’re on the cusp of a new generation of exploitation, potentially harnessing hacked personal information to enable tailored and targeted disinformation and social engineering efforts.  That should frighten us all. 


As someone who was involved in the tech industry for more than 20 years, I respect what this industry represents. I don’t envy the significant technical and policy challenges you face.  But the size and reach of your platforms demand that we, as policy-makers, do our job, to ensure proper oversight, transparency and protections for American users and for our democratic institutions.


The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end…Where we go from here is an open question. 


These are complicated technological challenges, and Congress has, at times, demonstrated that it still has some homework to do.  I think this Committee has done more than most to understand the threat to our democracy posed by social media.  I want to commend my colleagues on the Committee for tackling this challenge in a bipartisan way.  This is our fourth public hearing on the subject, and we’ve met behind closed doors countless times – with third-party researchers, with government officials, and with each of the platforms.  We’ve done the work, and we are well positioned to continue to lead in this space.  


Today’s hearing is not about “gotcha” questions or scoring political points.  Our goal today is to begin to shape actual policy solutions which will help us tackle this challenge. 


I’ve put forth a series of ideas that I’d like to get your constructive thoughts on.  For instance: 


·         Don’t your users have a right to know when they are interacting with bots on your platform? 

·         Isn’t there a public interest in ensuring more anonymized data is available to researchers and academics to help identify potential problems and misuse? 

·         Why are your terms of service so difficult to find and nearly impossible to read, much less understand?

·         Why shouldn’t we adopt ideas like data portability, data minimization, or first party consent?

·         After witnessing numerous episodes of misuse, what further accountability should there be with respect to the flawed advertising model that you utilize? 


These are just some of our ideas.  We’ve received a lot of positive feedback, both from experts and users…  We’ve also been accused of trying to bring about the death of the internet. 


I’m anxious to hear your views on our proposals and what suggestions you and your teams can bring to the table on this front.  I’m disappointed Google is not here today to bring their ideas to the table.


We have to be able to find smart, thoughtful policy solutions that get us somewhere beyond the status quo, without applying ham-handed, 20th century solutions to 21st century problems. At the same time, we should be mindful to adopt policies that do not simply entrench the existing dominant platforms.  These are not just challenges for our politics or our democracy.  These threats can affect our economy, our financial system, and other parts of our lives.    


I’m hopeful that we can get there.  I’m confident in American ingenuity.  And I’m optimistic that this Congress, led by this Committee in a bipartisan fashion, can move this conversation forward.


I look forward to our discussion today and thank the witnesses for being here.