If you were anywhere near Twitter during the 2016 election, you likely saw them. If you were in any way connected to politics, they saw you.
An angry sea of accounts that swarmed and attacked, amplifying some issues, drowning out others. Some were undoubtedly manned by real people. Many were not.
Those unmanned ones, particularly those controlled by virtual puppeteers in the Kremlin, are the subject of investigations in both the U.S. Senate and House. And on Thursday, after closed door meetings at the Capitol, Twitter pulled the curtain back just a tiny bit to reveal what it’s learned ― and what it’s doing to limit the influence of fake accounts in the future.
The briefings by company officials ― provided separately to staff members of the Senate and House intelligence committees ― didn’t exactly dazzle lawmakers, two of whom accused Twitter afterward of dropping the ball in probing the matter.
In a similar meeting with Capitol Hill staffers earlier this month, Facebook disclosed that its own internal investigation found evidence that Russian-linked agents purchased at least $100,000 worth of advertising on the site during the campaign. Facebook hasn’t released any of the ads in question, but the company described them as divisive and focused on hot-button topics like immigration, race and gay rights.
The Twitter officials also said on Thursday that Russia Today (which goes by the moniker RT) spent at least $274,100 in 2016 promoting 1,823 tweets across several of its affiliate accounts that targeted the U.S. market. RT is partially funded by the Russian government and is regarded by US intelligence agencies as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”
That in itself is no smoking gun ― plenty of companies and other groups on Twitter pay to promote tweets. But it could certainly be an important piece in a much larger puzzle.
Twitter also announced other measures intended to curb spam on the platform and prevent its “trending topics” from being gamed.
The presentation that the Twitter team made to the Senate Intel staff today was deeply disappointing. Sen. Mark Warner
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel, expressed dismay over what the Twitter officials had to offer the congressional investigators and, in his view, how little effort the company has expended in their pursuit.
“The presentation that the Twitter team made to the Senate Intel staff today was deeply disappointing,” Warner said. He called it “inadequate on almost every level.”
“The notion that their work was basically derivative, based upon accounts that Facebook had identified, showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again, begs many more questions than they [answer],” he said.
Warner also posted his own tweet to emphasize his point:
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, echoed Warner’s complaints.
While Schiff applauded Twitter for identifying and removing a handful of accounts linked to the Kremlin, he said the company has done little but piggyback off of Facebook’s far more substantial work.
“Much of the information that Twitter used to identify Russian-linked accounts ... was derived from Facebook’s own analysis,” Schiff said in a statement. “It is clear that Twitter has significant forensic work to do to understand the depth and breadth of Russian activity during the campaign.”