Don't Blame Tech Companies for Russian Election Trolls

If our elected representatives need someone to blame, they might try looking a little closer to home.


Russian Hacker
Dmitrii Melnikov/

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) blames Silicon Valley for not detecting a dark "underbelly" of Russian propaganda online. Facebook and Twitter are "a day late and a dollar short," he recently told Variety. Their executives, he added, selfishly want the controversy over fake news and targeted ads "to go away because it affects their business model."

Also eager to blame tech companies are Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who have been lobbing interrogatories at the two firms while accusing them of failing to stomp out Russian influence.

"I must say, I don't think you get it," Feinstein informed representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter at a hearing last November. "You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will."

But when the feds tried to "do something about it," the results were far from impressive. News reports nearly five years ago revealed that outfits linked to the Kremlin were inserting themselves into American public affairs, and the Washington establishment did little about it.

Russian skullduggery became public in 2013 when Novaya Gazeta revealed that "specially equipped offices" in St. Petersburg and Moscow were operated by Internet trolls employed to "scold" America. A year later, Buzzfeed warned that the Russian government had launched "a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion" and "encourage dissent."

A June 2015 cover story in The New York Times Magazine offered more details. It said the Russian government had hired an outfit called the Internet Research Agency, whose propagandists gamely struggled past their broken English to denounce President Barack Obama on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the comment sections of CNN, Politico, and Fox News. The disinformation campaign included fake patriot groups like Spread Your Wings, "a community for everyone whose heart is with America."

In the bowels of Washington officialdom, despite billion-dollar intelligence budgets and a peerless global surveillance apparatus, very little appears to have been done. No Russian nationals associated with the disinformation campaign were deported from the United States. (Three were improvidently granted U.S. visas.) No official warnings appear to have been sent to social networks or payment processors. And no indictments were made until a few weeks ago.

Facebook notified the FBI about Russian activity in June 2016, but no U.S. law enforcement or intelligence officials visited the social media company to compare notes. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the State Department pulled the plug on a project to combat Russian disinformation. The New Yorker concluded that the FBI, despite its $9 billion budget and 35,000 employees, simply "is not up to the job of detecting and countering Russian disinformation." The Washington Post summarized the bureaucratic failures: "Top U.S. policymakers didn't appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement."

So it's a surprise to see senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are charged with providing "vigilant legislative oversight" of the nation's spy and counter-espionage agencies, pointing fingers approximately 2,800 miles westward instead.

Twitter responded to Feinstein by saying it has "established a dedicated Information Quality team" to prevent fake content from "contaminating our platform." Facebook's solution was to disclose more: It will reveal every ad a page is running, and will attempt to verify political advertisers' identities. (Perhaps embattled executives in Menlo Park wish they had followed T.J. Rodgers' famous advice not to normalize relations with Washington, D.C.)

These are reasonable steps, but they cannot stop a sufficiently determined national government. If Moscow can create cover identities for actual spies living in the United States, it can surely devise an identity for an would-be advertiser or simply impersonate an American citizen online. Identity fraud is no obstacle for a government willing to violate U.S. criminal laws. Silicon Valley companies shouldn't be expected to conduct counterespionage operations of their own.

Meanwhile, it's worth questioning whether Russian propaganda substantially influenced voters in the first place. The Facebook ads were risible and written in a language enjoying only a tenuous relationship with English. Engagement was poor. Kremlin-linked ad spending represented less than 1 percent of the $1.4 billion spent on online ads in the last election. Even the Justice Department acknowledges there is no evidence that Russians "altered the outcome of the 2016 election."

This is not to excuse Silicon Valley companies that turn a blind eye to unlawful activity. (It is, in general, illegal for representatives of foreign governments to engage in U.S. political activities.) Their executives have an ethical obligation to address a disinformation campaign by a foreign government, and they seem to be doing just that. If our elected representatives on the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees need someone to blame, they might try looking a little closer to home.