Twitter, Facebook, and Google were brought before Congress last week over claims about Russian use of their platforms to influence the 2016 election. We speak to Yasha Levine, author of the forthcoming “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.”
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Twitter, Facebook and Google were brought before Congress last week for two days of hearings on Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election. Lawmakers accused the tech giants of failing stop a Kremlin plot to elect Donald Trump, and sew domestic chaos through social media and the marginal outlets RT and Sputnik. But as this clip put together by RT shows, things did not go so well. SPEAKER: I went home last night with profound disappointment. SPEAKER: All of what the Russians did last year has basically been a free pass. RON WYDEN: In the past election, you failed. SPEAKER: Lack of resources, a lack of commitment, and a lack of genuine effort. SPEAKER: And that just won’t do. SPEAKER: The key, I’d say, progress we’ve made is- SPEAKER: That’s a yes or no once again. Mr. Edgett. SPEAKER: We think that the key to this area is transparency. SPEAKER: My guess, I’m really not satisfied with that. SPEAKER: We have services that verify identities on the platform … SPEAKER: So, why on Earth not? SPEAKER: Well, the answer is yes or no. I don’t want a long explanation. SPEAKER: Senator, those … Let me try to say this … RON WYDEN: I would like in writing within a week what you’re doing about it. SPEAKER: We are constantly doing better. AARON MATÉ: I’m joined now by Yasha Levine, investigative journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Welcome, Yasha. It’s great to have you on. Now, you are uniquely positioned to discuss this issue because you’re not just a reporter who covers Silicon Valley but you’re also Russian born. So, I guess to start off, I want to ask you, if you could summarize what you thought was the most important, or salient parts of these two days of hearings last week on Russia’s social media presence in the 2016 election. YASHA LEVINE: Yeah. Thanks for having me on. I’m glad to be here. Yeah. Well, I mean, there was a ridiculous spectacle. You know? I’d say it’s evoked kind of for me, a Soviet show trial, really. Because there you saw politicians on both parties, Republicans and the Democrats basically creating a fake enemy and whipping up fears of this sort of scary other, to cover for their own political failings, and sort of dragging these representatives, or these biggest technology companies in America and basically extracting confessions out of them, and extracting mea culpas out of them, and saying that yes, they let this enemy in and that they’ll promise to do better next time. You know, it was a show trial. Pure and simple. AARON MATÉ: So, Yasha, to illustrate what you say there about creating an enemy, I wanna go to a clip that I think illustrates that point very clearly. This is a Democratic senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and he’s making some opening statements. This is what he says about Russia. RON WYDEN With the current fascist leadership of Russia enthusiastically undermining our democracy, America must defend the values that made us great and aggressively confront this espionage and the enemies that sponsor it. AARON MATÉ: So, that’s Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, known for having progressive views on certain issues calling the Russian government fascist and accusing it of espionage through its alleged social media campaign during the 2016 election. So, Yasha, let’s talk about the espionage part of this as Wyden describes it. These apparent ads from Russian troll farms, by all accounts, that were meant to, in the framing of this narrative, to sow chaos in the U.S. Can you talk about what those ads actually contained and what you think they actually were? Like, what their goals were. YASHA LEVINE: That’s a good question. You know, I still think that for the most part it’s not clear who is paying for those ads because the information that we’re getting from Facebook and from Twitter, that these ads are bought by Russian linked accounts. Right? Russia linked accounts are a very hazy and sort of unclear category. According to Twitter’s own testimony, Russia linked could mean any account that had logged in from a Russian IP address. It could mean any account that had used Cyrillic in its Twitter handle or Tweeted in Russian. It could be any account that is in any way, however tangentially tied to the Russian territory. So, it doesn’t have to be tied to the Russian government. It can pretty much belong to maybe a tourist who passed through Russia at some point, and logged in from their hotel. AARON MATÉ: That’s right, Yasha. Just to be clear, this is not if it meets all of these criteria. It’s simply Twitter’s criteria as it explained in the hearing, is if it meets any of these criteria. YASHA LEVINE: Yeah. AARON MATÉ: So, if someone logs in from a Russian IP address, that’s enough for Twitter to say, “This is Russian linked.” YASHA LEVINE: Yeah. Totally. It could be anyone of those. And so, I would be considered a Russian linked account, because I had reported from Russia, obviously, and I spent about eight months in Russia last winter, logging into Twitter every day from a Russian IP address, and tweeting about Russian events and tweeting about events from a perspective that was critical of American foreign policy. So, it’s hard for me to explain and to talk about what these ads were and what their role was and what the thinking was of the people who paid for them. Right? Because, these companies aren’t providing any real information. Right? They’re throwing them out there and they’re saying that, “Look, these are examples of some kind of Russian actors,” as they like to call them, “Doing something to divide America.” So, there’s ads of Bernie Sanders. There’s ads for the Black Lives Matter movement. But, I don’t actually know- AARON MATÉ: Yasha, sorry. I wanna show one of those ads of Bernie Sanders. YASHA LEVINE: Sure. AARON MATÉ: He’s, as a superhero, he has his shirt off. It’s by a group called LGBT United. It says you can color your own Bernie hero. So, this is one of the ads. It’s Bernie as this cartoonish superhero with his shirt off, and that is, we’re told, is what is supposed to be this Russian effort to hurt Hillary, elect Trump, and sew chaos in the U.S. Go ahead. YASHA LEVINE: I mean, I don’t know what to tell you. You know, it’s a joke. And again, it reminds me of a show trial because this evidence is being offered at these Congressional hearings. Right? At these Congressional investigations as proof of something really nefarious going on, as proof that Russia had somehow weaponized these democratic, almost utopian platforms, and weaponized them against America and subverted America’s democracy. These things are shown as evidence of that, and it’s a farce. I mean, you can’t believe it unless you already are so willing to believe the narrative that it was Russian that undermined America that it was Russia that made Trump possible that it was Russia that helped lead to Hillary’s defeat, that it was Russia that’s behind the anti-fracking movement, it’s Russia behind protests again Wall Street and inequality that it was Russia behind the Black Lives Matter. If you’re willing to believe all that, these ads will offer more proof that Russia is really behind everything that’s wrong with America and everything bad that’s happening in America. But to everyone else who looks at this critically, it’s hard to take it seriously. AARON MATÉ: So, let me ask you, given that there’s a close history between Silicon Valley and the government and given that we also know that when Facebook initially did their first review of the alleged Russian meddling, they found that actually most of the ads that they identified were for commercial purposes. This is from a really big Washington Post account of the Facebook angle of the Russia-gate story. But, they only changed their mind after they received Congressional pressure. So, I’m wondering if you think, what sort of leverage does Congress have over Silicon Valley to get them to, perhaps, play ball, to join them in the Russia-gate frenzy in order to advance their narrative? YASHA LEVINE: Yeah. I mean, I think the leverage is actually pretty simple here and pretty clear. There have been multiple stories actually written about this in Bloomberg and in the Huffington Post. It’s basically regulation. So a few weeks ago in the Senate, there was a bipartisan legislation proposed. It was sponsored in part by Senator McCain. You know? And that would regulate internet advertising. Right? And force companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter to disclose who’s paying for the ad. And so, the stick that Congress is wielding is regulation, and Silicon Valley is deadly scared of being regulated and being forced to open up their really opaque advertising business. And so, they’re complying completely with these investigations and they’re telling Congress exactly what it wants to hear. It was incredible to watch, actually. On October 31st, the Senate hearing, you basically had lawyers of the biggest technologies in America going down the line. Right? And pledging their allegiance to America and to protect America and doing everything they could to prevent foreign meddling and foreign influence in American society. This is coming from companies that have, for years, told the world, have told countries like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, China that their platforms are totally politically neutral and that they’re in no way connected to the U.S. government or to the goals of the bigger national security state in America’s foreign policy apparatus. What Silicon Valley has done here is completely ditched that idea, this idea that they’ve been pushing for as long as I can remember. Right? And I think they’re doing it. It’s kind of incredible to see. And they’re doing it to prevent having to open up and to be honest about their business practices, ’cause I think there’s a lot of stuff that they’re afraid will get out about the way that they make money. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Yasha Levine, investigative journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Yasha, thank you. YASHA LEVINE: Thanks. Thank you for having me on. AARON MATÉ: And, thank you for joining us on The Real News.