US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: Opening Remarks from Twitter’s General Counsel, Sean Edgett.
Chairman Graham, Ranking Member Whitehouse, and Members of the Committee:
Twitter understands the importance of the Committee’s inquiry into extremist content and Russian disinformation in the 2016 election, and we appreciate the opportunity to appear here today.
The events underlying this hearing have been deeply concerning to our company and the broader Twitter community. We are committed to providing a service that fosters and facilitates free and open democratic debate and that promotes positive change in the world. We are troubled by reports that the power of Twitter was misused by a foreign actor for the purpose of influencing the US presidential election and undermining public faith in the democratic process.
The abuse of our platform to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us—and one that we are determined to meet. Today, we intend to show the Committee how serious we are about addressing this new threat by explaining the work we are doing to understand what happened and to ensure it does not happen again.
At the time of the 2016 election, we observed and acted on instances of automated and malicious activity. As we learned more about the scope of the broader problem, we resolved to strengthen our systems going forward. Elections continue all the time, so our first priority was to do all we could to block and remove malicious activity from interfering with our users’ experience. We created dedicated teams within Twitter to enhance the quality of the information our users see and to block malicious activity whenever and wherever we find it. Those teams continue to work every day to ensure Twitter remains a safe, open, transparent, and positive platform.
We have also launched a retrospective review to find Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election through automation, coordinated activity, and advertising. While that review is still underway, we have made the decision to share what we know, today, in the interests of transparency and out of appreciation for the urgency of this matter. We do so recognizing that our findings may be supplemented as we work with Committee staff and other companies, discover more facts, and gain a greater understanding of these events.
My written testimony details the methodology and current findings of the retrospective review in detail. We studied Tweets from the period September 1 to November 15, 2016. During that time, we did find automated and coordinated activity of interest. We determined that the number of accounts we could link to Russia and that were Tweeting election-related content was comparatively small—around one one-hundredth of a percent of total Twitter accounts at the time we studied.
One third of one percent of the election-related Tweets people saw came from Russian-linked automated accounts. We did, however, observe instances where Russian-linked activity was more pronounced, and we have uncovered more accounts linked to the Russian-based Internet Research Agency as a result of our review.
We also determined that advertising by Russia Today and seven small accounts was related to the election and violated either the policies in effect at the time or that have since been implemented. We have banned all of those users as advertisers, and we will donate the revenue to academic research into the use of Twitter during elections and for civic engagement.
We are making meaningful improvements based on our findings. Last week, we announced industry-leading changes to our advertising policies that will help protect our platform from unwanted content. We are also enhancing our safety policies, sharpening our tools for stopping malicious activity, and increasing transparency to promote public understanding of all these areas. These improvements will further our efforts to fight both terrorist content and disinformation. We will continue confronting these challenges for as long as malicious actors seek to abuse our system and will need to evolve to stay ahead of new tactics.
We have heard the concerns about Russian actors’ use of Twitter to disrupt the 2016 election and about our commitment to addressing this issue. Twitter believes that any activity of that kind—regardless of magnitude—is unacceptable, and we agree that we must do better to prevent it. We hope that our appearance today and the description of the work we have undertaken demonstrates our commitment to working with you, our industry partners, and other stakeholders to ensure that the experience of 2016 never happens again.
Cooperation to combat this challenge is essential. We cannot defeat this evolving, shared threat alone. As with most technology-based threats, the best approach is to combine information and ideas to increase our collective knowledge. Working with the broader community, we will continue to test, to learn, to share, and to improve so that our product remains effective and safe.
I look forward to answering your questions.
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