Chip Somodevilla / Staff
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Oscar Williams

News editor

Senator grills Facebook and Google over failure to spot Russian payments for US election ads

Facebook, Twitter and Google’s executives faced a barrage of criticism in today’s Senate hearing after admitting to letting Russian-linked accounts buy political ads that spread disinformation during last year’s US election campaign.

Senator Al Franken told Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch that the social networking giant should have been alert to rogue behaviour when political advertisers started buying ads using Russian currency.

“How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia?” he asked.

“It’s a signal we shouldn’t have missed”, Stretch admitted, but he refused to commit to Franken’s demand to ban users from buying political ads using currencies other than the US dollar.

The reason I’m hesitating on foreign currency is that it’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currency. It’s a signal but it’s not enough” he said, adding that Facebook’s goal is to require all political advertisers to provide documentation proving they are authorised to advertise.

Franken shot back: “Why would a bad actor go: ‘I’m going to trick Facebook, I’m going to use a North Korean won?’ My goal is for you to think through some of this stuff a little better.”

Later in the session, Twitter’s general counsel Sean Edgett said he thought the firm already refused to accept rouble for political ad payments, and committed to Franken’s proposal.

But Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado followed in Stretch’s footsteps, refusing to commit to ban foreign payments before checking if it is a good signal.

Facebook’s Stretch bore the brunt of questioning during the hearing. Senator John Kennedy asked him: “I’m trying to get us down from la la land here. The truth of the matter is you don’t have the ability to know who every one of these advertisers is, do you?”