By Daisuke Wakabayashi, Mike Isaac,
Russia Investigation Has Tech Giants Shying From "Social" Label
SAN FRANCISCO. After years of trying unsuccessfully to build a social network to rival Facebook, Google finally got something out of all of its failures: cover.
Members of Congress grilled the executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter this week in a trio of hearings focused on the role that social media played in advancing a Russian disinformation campaign before the 2016 election. Google`s representative at two of the hearings, Kent Walker, the company`s general counsel, made a point of distinguishing the search giant from its internet brethren. Repeatedly and unequivocally, he answered questions at the hearings by saying, "We`re not a social network."
Tech companies have taken a pounding in the court of public opinion in recent months. In the eyes of their critics, they have become too big, too powerful and too unmindful of their influence. And this week`s congressional hearings cast added and unflattering light on the industry`s growing embarrassment over the Russian election meddling.
"Without sufficient oversight, these companies never imagined hostile intelligence services would misuse their platforms in this way," said Renee DiResta, an independent security researcher at Data for Democracy. "The people running it appear to not fully appreciate what they`ve designed."
Not surprisingly, perhaps, a few of the industry`s biggest companies have been happy to say, in essence, don`t blame us.
Tim Cook, Apple`s chief executive and an outspoken critic of the data-collection practices of his company`s technological rivals, said Wednesday that he was concerned that social networks could be weaponized against the people who use them.
"The bigger issue is that some of these tools are used to divide people, to manipulate people, to get fake news to people in broad numbers, and so to influence their thinking," said Mr. Cook in an interview with NBC News.
Frank Shaw, head of communications at Apple`s longtime rival, Microsoft, praised Mr. Cook`s comments in a Twitter post, saying that Mr. Cook had framed the issue "perfectly." Last year, Microsoft did purchase LinkedIn, a career-oriented social network, for $26.2 billion, but that site appears to have played little role in Russia`s influence efforts.
With the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and their ilk over the last decade, "social" became a key Silicon Valley buzzword as companies crammed social network-like features into new products. Even Apple, despite the tens of billions of dollars it has earned making computing devices, has tried its hand at a social network focused on music.
But as social media has become increasingly connected to unpleasant bickering, race-baiting and Russian propaganda, the must-have "social" label has become an albatross, said Joseph Bayer, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who focuses on social networks.
"The mere fact that a tech company is trying to minimize its overall influence is a telling signal of the moment we`re in," said Mr. Bayer.
Google, which operates under the parent company Alphabet, can offer a distinction between its business and how social networks operate - largely because its attempts to build a social network have not been very successful.
The company spent millions of dollars creating Google+, a social site built specifically to take on Facebook. The company tied Google+ into nearly every one of its properties, describing it as the "social spine" of Google in public statements at the time.
There also were short-lived efforts like Google Buzz and Google Wave, or geographically specific sites like Orkut - popular in Brazil but ignored elsewhere.
Google+ continues to exist but it is considered a disappointment. Google said it had found no political posts from state-linked actors on Google+.
Google has often tried to fashion YouTube, its sprawling video service, into something more like a social network in hopes of keeping visitors interested. Last year, YouTube added what it called its "Community" product, essentially features intended to inspire users to interact more with one another.
Google said accounts believed to have ties to the Kremlin had uploaded more than 1,100 videos to YouTube on racial, religious and political topics. Those videos were viewed 309,000 times. Many of those videos had only a small number of views, though they were "frequently posted to other social media platforms," Richard Salgado, Google`s senior counsel in law enforcement and information security, told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.
Facebook, to offer a comparison, estimated that 150 million users of Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram, had been exposed to 80,000 posts that came from the Russian influence campaign.
Twitter said it had discovered more than 2,700 accounts that were linked to Russia`s Internet Research Agency, a company tied to the Kremlin, between September 2016 and November 2016. Those accounts posted roughly 131,000 tweets over that period. Twitter identified an additional 36,000 automated accounts that had posted 1.4 million election-related tweets linked to Russia over that same period. The tweets received about 288 million views.
"Now you`re seeing all the attention from Congress go to Facebook and Twitter, because they`re the linchpin" of the Russian information operations, said Ms. DiResta, the security researcher.
In his testimony on Capitol Hill, Mr. Walker, Google`s general counsel, sought to draw a bright line separating his company`s services from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which has been an occasional subject of Google acquisition rumors.
He also played down what Google knows about its users, a surprising conceit for a company that makes more money than anybody from selling advertising based on the online interests of users.
"We`re somewhat differently positioned because we`re not primarily a social network," Mr. Walker said in response to a question regarding whether Google should notify users who are exposed to propaganda or divisive content from a foreign government. "Many users are not logged in when they access content, so it`s difficult to know who sees what."
Still, social media remains a compelling proposition for internet companies, even Google, because it keeps people coming back and creates a place for them to spend their time, said Jan Dawson, an analyst at the technology data firm Jackdaw Research.
Take the example of Facebook. Despite having been assailed for weeks about the role it played in the 2016 election, Facebook reported another blockbuster financial quarter on Wednesday, shattering analysts` expectations with more than $4.7 billion in profit in the third quarter. That was a 79 percent increase from the same period one year ago.
"If you gave Google the choice of having a social network, even with everything that`s happened," said Mr. Dawson. "I think it would still like to have one."
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