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Research finds social media platforms omitted key info from Senate Russia probe

U.S. social media companies including Facebook Inc. and Google LLC parent Alphabet Inc. omitted or misrepresented key information to U.S. officials researching the scope of Russian efforts to influence U.S. voters, according to research commissioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

Two new reports released Dec. 17 found that the Russia-backed operations engaged in more expansive efforts to influence U.S. voters across a wider array of social media platforms than previously known, including Instagram Inc., which one report said saw much more engagement with Russian-generated content than Facebook itself. In response to the reports, representatives for Facebook and Twitter Inc. stressed the companies' interest in cooperating with government investigations and improving public conversation on their platforms. Alphabet declined to comment.

A report created by researchers at Columbia University, cybersecurity company New Knowledge and software research firm Canfield Research LLC, analyzed social media posts and metadata provided by Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet, among other platforms, and found that the Russian-backed operations engaged in voter suppression efforts, targeted African-American communities, deliberately created divisive content, and had a clear bias toward President Donald Trump's candidacy in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The influence effort was headed by the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-based company that allegedly advocates for Russian political and business interests, the report said.

The report also alleged that some information submitted by the U.S. social media companies was incomplete, such as its methodology for identifying accounts, pathway data to determine how individuals came to follow accounts and anonymized user comments. It said minimal metadata and limited user engagement data were submitted.

"Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress; one platform claimed that no specific groups were targeted (this is only true if speaking strictly of ads), while another dissembled about whether or not the Internet Research Agency created content to discourage voting (it did). It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion," the report said.

Additionally, researchers allege that Facebook executives downplayed Instagram's role in the influence operations, finding that the Internet Research Agency's efforts generated more than twice as much engagement on Instagram as it did on Facebook.

"Instagram was a significant front in the IRA's influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony," the researchers wrote.

Researchers reviewed a dataset that included over 10 million tweets, more than 1,100 YouTube videos, 116,000 Instagram posts and 61,500 unique Facebook posts. The report studied influence efforts spanning 2014-2017.

Another report, from the Oxford Internet Institute and Graphika Inc., a social network analysis company, was released at the same time. It found that the Internet Research Agency's activities focusing on the U.S. began in 2013 on Twitter, but expanded to include Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, in addition to other platforms. The Oxford report also found that the online operations targeted different segments of the U.S. population with different messages, including divisive content. The report studied influence efforts from 2012-2018.

Bharath Ganesh, one of the authors of the Oxford study, told S&P Global Market Intelligence in an interview that limited data provided by the social media companies provided analytical challenges to the researchers.

"Google provided particularly scant data in terms of helping us understand how their platform might have been used," he said. While Google provided photos of ads bought on Google's advertising platform and YouTube Videos, Ganesh says they did not provide much metadata about any of the information, so it was hard to analyze who was targeted and when ads were purchased.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a Dec. 17 press release that the reports' findings should stand as a "wake up call" and inspire legislators to craft "some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media."

The committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called on social media companies to increase information sharing between social media companies and third-party experts who can analyze the information.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company continues "to fully cooperate" with congressional investigations and that the reports show the need for the government to investigate the influence campaigns on its platform in the 2016 election cycle.

"As we've said all along, Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency," Facebook's spokesperson said.

A Twitter spokesperson said that the company's "singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform, and protecting the integrity of elections is an important aspect of that mission."