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Big tech companies are testifying on Russian meddling before Congress this week. (Photo via BigStock).

We’ve come a long way since Mark Zuckerberg famously said that it was “crazy” to think fake news on Facebook influenced the 2016 election.

How far? Not long ago, Facebook said it had identified only a few thousand suspicious accounts on its service that might have been linked to Russia. Today, during Congressional testimony, the firm said 126 million people may have seen Russian propaganda on Facebook.

During a mostly civil hearing Tuesday before a Senate intelligence committee, Facebook, Twitter and Google used the strongest language yet in admitting their services were abused during the election, and vowed to work against further attacks by foreign governments. The obstacles they face are enormous however, ranging from how easy it is to obscure the origins of the content to the problem of “false positives” — tighter controls on content will inevitably infringe on free speech.

Not long ago, Internet firms were content to hide behind their legal designations as agnostic platforms, as opposed to publishers that could be held responsible for content they spread. The time for that has passed.

“All three companies here…no longer think whatever goes across your platform is not your concern, right?” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch called the Russian disinformation campaign “reprehensible.” Twitter acting general counsel Sean Edgett said the firm was acting “to ensure that the experience of 2016 never happens again.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) was unimpressed by the firms’ efforts so far, however.

“Why has it taken Facebook 11 months (to offer this information) when former President Obama cautioned your CEO nine days after the election?” he asked.

During the hearing, Stretch explained how Russian-paid ads were used to drive users toward Facebook pages, which were then used to spread propaganda through the service’s traditional network effects — they were shared and re-shared by users. That’s how a few thousands paid ads could ultimately reach potentially millions of users.

At one point, Coons held up one example — a Facebook page called Heart of Texas that ultimately collected about 225,000 followers. Ads for the page were purchased in rubles. One Heart of Texas ad said Hillary Clinton was despised by an overwhelming number of veterans, and urged secession if she won the election.

“That ad has no place on Facebook. It makes me angry. It makes everyone on Facebook angry,” Stretch said.

But Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) challenged Stretch about why the firm didn’t spot the Russian influence problem sooner.

“These are American political ads (purchased) with Russian money…how could you not connect the dots?” he said. “People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. You put billions of data points together all the time….You can’t put together rubles with political ads and go, ‘Hmmm. Those two data points spell out something bad?’”

“Senator, that’s a signal we should have been alert to and in hindsight, it’s one we missed,” Stretch said.

Twitter was targeted for similar criticism by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). He held up an ad saying citizens could vote from home, allegedly shown to likely Hillary Clinton voters. Twitter said the ads were ultimately removed as illegal voter suppression.

“But they kept reappearing,” Blumenthal complained.

Most of the fake Russian ads and posts — something Facebook calls “coordinated inauthentic activity” — were issue-based, the firms said. They didn’t necessarily support a candidate, but instead sought to cause fights among users. In Internet lingo, it was a sophisticated troll campaign

“Russia does not have loyalty to a political party. Their goal is to divide us,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said.

Much of the hearing focused on the potential for abuse that comes with social media targeting technology, which allows advertisers to be very selective in determining who sees ads that are purchased. The tools are tailor-made for micro-targeting propaganda. Blumenthal questioned whether a Russian group could have made micro-targeting decisions without help from political consultants in the U.S., hinting the Russians had help from U.S. agents.

The most chilling part of the hearing occurred after Facebook, Google, and Twitter left, however. Clint Watts, an analyst with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained that no single firm could “fully comprehend” the influence that Russians had in 2016 — because Russian propagandists used a holistic plan of attack. A single post on the 4Chan message board would be discussed on Russian-backed Twitter accounts, then spread far and wide on Facebook, then land in news stories on Google, and so on. He called Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign “the most successful in history,” and said it would certainly be copied.

“The Kremlin playbook will be adopted by others,” he said. Other foreign governments, dark political candidates, and even corporations would copy Russian techniques unless Congress managed to get control of the issue now, he warned.

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