Facebook & Twitter Deleted Crucial Data as Senate Begins Probe into Russia’s Involvement in 2016 Election
Twitter has handed over information about 201 accounts linked to Russian efforts to influence 2016 presidential election to the Senate investigators. However, it appears that the information may not be sufficient enough for investigators since the company has reportedly deleted tweets and other data linked to these accounts that is considered "of potentially irreplaceable value to investigators probing" the matter.
Facebook and Twitter face Senate grilling over their role in Russia's disinformation campaign
This news comes just a day after The Washington Post reported Facebook doing the same. Following a research that revealed that at least 20 million people were reached by ads bought by Russians on Facebook, the company has now scrubbed all that data off its platform suggesting that it was a "bug" that had enabled the researchers to access the data they should have never been able to in the first place.
"Across all our platforms we have privacy commitments to make inactive content that is no longer available, inaccessible," company spokesman Andy Stone said.
A Politico report reveals that "a substantial amount of valuable information held by Twitter is lost for good, according to the cybersecurity analysts and other current and former US officials." This data was critical to investigators to identify who was behind these widespread advertising campaigns and how they collaborated across different social media networks.
"So if you have access to all this, you can basically see when botnets appeared and disappeared, and how they shaped narrative around certain events."
Robert Anderson, a former FBI Executive Assistant told Politico that the "Russian cyber tradecraft dictates that operatives immediately erase all of their digital breadcrumbs," which meant that following the election, they started a spree to delete accounts and tweets. This in turn meant that Twitter also had to delete the content and paid promotions according to its privacy policies. However, investigators are questioning the company's actions considering the sensitivity of the investigation.
"Were Twitter a contractor for the FSB, they could not have built a more effective disinformation platform," an expert witness on Russian disinformation campaigns for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation told Politico.
If, however, Twitter does produce this data that was removed by account holders, it could face questions from privacy advocates as it would confirm that the company holds their data after it's deleted. The company is clearly in a situation no one in the Silicon Valley wants to be right now.
Twitter is set to appear before the Senate intelligence committee at a public hearing on November 1. Both Facebook and Google have also been invited to testify at the same hearing.
Facebook's actions are more scandalous
Twitter may have been simply following its privacy policies, Facebook's actions are being considered as a way to conceal its true involvement in the process as it faces questions from Washington. "Facebook takes down data and thousands of posts, obscuring reach of Russian disinformation," the WaPo title reads. Facebook itself had reported that over 470 accounts on the platform were tied to Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St Petersburg that went dark right after the election.
Before Facebook went on a mass deletion spree, researcher Jonathan Albright had said that the company had underreported its ads' reach. Facebook had claimed that over 10 million Americans were reached by Russian ads during the presidential election campaign. Albright says the reach was at least double, if not more. Of the reported 470 accounts, Albright only focused on just six, determining that those pages had actually generated 19.1 million Facebook interactions, being shared roughly 340 million times.
Just as media started reporting Albright's findings, data started to vanish. "There was nothing,” Albright said. "It was wiped."
"One question that has emerged is whether there’s a connection between the Russian efforts and ads purchased on Facebook," the company had said last month when it reported its involvement in the Russian campaign of election manipulation to the investigators. "These are serious claims and we’ve been reviewing a range of activity on our platform to help understand what happened."
While these are indeed serious claims, Facebook may face growing criticism from Washington over how it's responding to these concerns by deleting critically important data. For months the company downplayed any role the platform may have had in the election before sharing some ad data with the investigators in September.
“Any time you lose data," David Karpf, George Washington University professor told the WaPo. "I don't like it, especially when you lose data and you're right in the middle of public scrutiny."