RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Facebook, Twitter and Google are testifying on Capitol Hill this week about how their platforms were used by Russian sources to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook reported that as many as 126 million users may have seen content, quote, "that originated from the Russian operation." Twitter uncovered some 2,700 Russia-linked accounts. The company's top lawyers are testifying before both the House and Senate intelligence committees. Here's Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, testifying yesterday.
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COLIN STRETCH: We believe that authenticity is really a cornerstone of what we do, and preventing the platform from being used for abuse is our responsibility, and we're committed to meeting that responsibility.
MARTIN: The hearings continue today. Senator Angus King will be in that hearing on Capitol Hill on the Senate side. Senator King is in our studios this morning. Thanks so much for being with us.
ANGUS KING: Good morning, Rachel, glad to be here.
MARTIN: What are the questions you think these companies still need to answer?
KING: Well, I think they still need to answer how they're going to help ensure that the content that they're providing to the American public and to the worldwide public has some validity and is not coming from abroad. We don't want them to become truth censors. I don't think that's their job. On the other hand, when they are conveying information that's in the nature of propaganda from a foreign country that's being put on their platform for nefarious purposes, I think they have some obligation to try to help us figure out how to control that.
MARTIN: So this seems to be - the scope of this is growing. I mean, it's much wider than previously reported, right? Twitter alone has since uncovered Russia-linked accounts that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election. Facebook had initially reported just 10 million users may have been exposed. I say just because now the new report is that it's 126 million users.
KING: And I've heard reports of over 300 million, so it's huge. This is the big story. This is the Russians' attempt to manipulate the American people and misinform people. In 2004, a GRU officer, one of the Russian military people, said this is a new kind of warfare. This is information warfare, and it's just like armed warfare, and that's what they're doing.
MARTIN: So then how do you stop it?
KING: Well, that's a - that's a really good question, and that's one of the things that we're going to be examining today. I mean, there are lots of ideas. For example, you get an ad on Facebook. I think one thing that would be fairly straightforward that would simply be consistent with the way we do our advertising in the U.S. in political campaigns is have a label of origin - where did it come from, who sponsored it - so that it's not entirely anonymous, some kind of disclaimer. But the real problem is not necessarily the ads but the fake feeds that come out - there's a factory in St. Petersburg of people who all day long are feeding, trying to send in divisive information to affect our politics from Russia. And we've got to figure out can it be technically identified as coming from Russia, for example?
MARTIN: So then let's talk about then what is - what is the responsibility of these tech companies? If you say - you take the example of these bot farms where all this is originating from. If Facebook or Twitter allows that content, in some cases, there's a financial transaction that actually happens.
KING: That's right.
MARTIN: So how do you incentivize Facebook, Twitter, these other companies to shut that down, to not take that content?
KING: Well, I think part of it is that their customers, their - our - those of us who use Facebook have to be - have to say we want to know where this information is coming from. There has to be some consumer demand. There's also, Rachel, some responsibility on us as consumers. We've got to learn when we're being conned. We've got to understand when not to fall for some of these conspiracy theories and these breathless things that come through. As I say, the more dangerous part about this for me is not the ads that are clearly everybody says, oh, that's an ad but when there's a fake person...
MARTIN: A fake profile that's posting things.
KING: ...A fake profile who's posting something to your newsfeed that, you know, that says, you know, Hillary Clinton kicks dogs or something, we've got to become better about understanding when this isn't true. The best example I've heard is we all - when we pass through the grocery line, we see the tabloids with the headlines about, you know, some movie star having a two-headed baby. And we sort of dismiss that. I mean, we've learned to say, oh, you know, that's probably not true. We've got to start applying that kind of consumer...
KING: ...Thoughtfulness to what we see on the Internet. We have a quote on our kitchen wall at home that said the trouble with quotes on the Internet is it's difficult to determine if they were authentic - Abraham Lincoln.
MARTIN: Point well taken. The hearings, though, you're hearing this testimony. What concrete measures do you want to come out of this? What do these companies need to commit to through this process?
KING: Well, I think the first thing is that they have to commit to admitting that there is a problem, and I think in the last two weeks that's happened. They were downplaying this pretty thoroughly for the last several months. I think now we've gotten to the point just in the last few days where they're saying, yes, 126 million people have seen this. I think it was way more than that. So the first thing we have to get from them is a commitment that they understand that they've got an issue that we have to confront. Secondly, they have - they're sitting on this mountain of data, and one of my questions today is is there a technical way that you could identify for your readers the origin of a newsfeed just like a date line on a news story. When you pick up a news story, it says...
MARTIN: These companies, though, they say that that's just impossible. It's too onerous. There are too many different disparate sources.
KING: Well, you know, I've heard companies say things like that all the time, that it's too onerous and it's impossible. But let's see what they can come up with. Maybe it is, but maybe there are some other alternatives. I think they're the ones that are running this platform. They're making a ton of money. I'm looking for them to come up with some suggestions to deal with what is a very serious problem.
MARTIN: Just briefly, do you think any of these potential fixes could be in place by the 2018 midterm elections?
KING: Yes, I think that some of the technological fixes, if they are possible. And again, I don't want to come off as somebody that wants to censor the Internet. I absolutely don't. But I think we need to have better under - we have to better understanding of what we're being told and where it's coming from.
MARTIN: Senator Angus King - he serves on the Senate intelligence committee. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.
KING: Glad to, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.