WASHINGTON — After promising to dig deep into Russia’s silent cyberwarfare on the United States, members of Congress had plenty of questions this week for the big three online platforms —Facebook, Twitter and Google — but found that answers were hard to come by.
In hearings before Senate and House committees, top lawyers from the three companies struggled to answer the very simplest of questions about how their platforms have dealt with the widespread efforts to influence elections and divide Americans. They also said they were unable to reveal how much money they’ve made from those efforts.
That has produced frustration and anger on the part of many legislators, particularly among Democrats who are still furious at Russia's role in helping to elect President Donald Trump.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told NBC News that it's insufficient for Facebook to say that the ads run by Russian groups were vile and upsetting, and that the company shares the concerns of Congress.
"Actions speak louder than words," he said in an interview. "I was not satisfied with the detail and the initiative taken by the three groups. They enjoy a positive reputation in our country. They are not showing the kind of forward-leaning cooperation that would persuade me that they’re taking it seriously.”
Coons was clearly boiling at what he called the "fake front groups" that paid Facebook in rubles to topple Hillary Clinton, and he questioned why the companies sent their lawyers rather than their chief executives.
“Eleven months after the election, they are just now beginning to come forward with data,” he said. “If you took it more seriously, wouldn’t your CEO be sitting here today?”
While the three companies have promised to add employees, improve artificial intelligence and machine learning, and tweak their algorithms, those commitments will be hard to verify.
At the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked how much the three companies were spending to deal with bots, fake ads and other problems, as a percentage of revenue. The three responded that they’d get back to him on that one.
(On Wednesday, however, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, said he was making a significant commitment to spending on the problem, and told analysts that it could slow future growth.)
When the committee's vice-chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., asked about the 30,000 accounts Facebook suspended during the French election, and whether Facebook was able to see if those same accounts were also banned in the United States, the company's general counsel, Colin Stretch, could not say.
“I’ll have to come back to you on that, senator,” he responded.
Similarly, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., demanded to know how much advertising revenue was derived from American advertisers next to Russian propaganda posts. Facebook did not know.
Google also shrugged off the tough financial questions.
“The more clicks, the more money is made," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., pressing Google on its financial dealings with the Russian channel RT, to little avail. "Is it safe to say they make a significant amount of money from shared ad revenue? Is Google paying the Kremlin-owned entity?” Klobuchar asked.
Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, acknowledged that in general, money is paid to the channels on YouTube, the video company owned by Google, but said he didn't know how much or to whom.
“The only reason I’m hedging is I don’t know exactly the financials,” Salgado said.
That answer seemed to appall Luther Low, vice president of public policy at Yelp, which is a frequent critic of Google on antitrust issues.
“They couldn’t answer a simple question," said Low, who attended the hearings. "Did Google give money to the Kremlin-backed propaganda operations? When the simple answer is yes.”
The critics weren't limited to Democrats. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., tried to get Facebook to explain how much scrutiny it gives potential advertisers.
“If I wanted to hire a lawyer and say, 'Let’s go through about four shell companies because I want to hide my identity,' you’re telling me you have the ability to trace through all of these corporations to find the true identity?” he asked.
To which Facebook’s Stretch responded, “To your question about seeing behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations: Obviously the answer is no.”
Senators made it clear there would be more questions coming.
“I asked specific questions," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I got vague answers, and that just won’t do.”