Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has admitted that the social networking giant could have done more to prevent foreign interference on its platforms, but said that the government also needs to step up its intelligence sharing efforts.
The remarks are ahead of an open hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, where Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey will testify on foreign interference and election meddling on social media platforms. Google’s Larry Page was invited, but declined to attend.
“We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act,” said Sandberg in prepared remarks. “That’s on us.”
The hearing comes in the aftermath of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Social media companies have been increasingly under the spotlight after foreign actors, believed to be working for or closely to the Russian government, used disinformation spreading tactics to try to influence the outcome of the election, as well as in the run-up to the midterm elections later this year.
Both Facebook and Twitter have removed accounts and bots from their sites believed to be involved in spreading disinformation and false news. Google said last year that it found Russian meddling efforts on its platforms.
“We’re getting better at finding and combating our adversaries, from financially motivated troll farms to sophisticated military intelligence operations,” said Sandberg.
But Facebook’s second-in-command also said that the US government could do more to help companies understand the wider picture from Russian interference.
“We continue to monitor our service for abuse and share information with law enforcement and others in our industry about these threats,” she said. “Our understanding of overall Russian activity in 2016 is limited because we do not have access to the information or investigative tools that the U.S. government and this Committee have,” she said.
Later, Twitter’s Dorsey also said in his own statement: “The threat we face requires extensive partnership and collaboration with our government partners and industry peers,” adding: “We each possess information the other does not have, and the combined information is more powerful in combating these threats.”
Both Sandberg and Dorsey are subtly referring to classified information that the government has but private companies don’t get to see — information that is considered a state secret.
Tech companies have in recent years pushed for more access to knowledge that federal agencies have, not least to help protect against increasing cybersecurity threats and hostile nation state actors. The theory goes that the idea of sharing intelligence can help companies defend against the best resourced hackers. But efforts to introduce legislation has proven controversial because critics argue that in sharing threat information with the government private user data would also be collected and sent to US intelligence agencies for further investigation.
Instead, tech companies are now pushing for information from Homeland Security to better understand the threats they face — to independently fend off future attacks.
As reported, tech companies last month met in secret to discuss preparations to counter foreign manipulation on their platforms. But attendees, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google and Microsoft are said to have “left the meeting discouraged” that they received little insight from the government.