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Lawmakers Meet With Twitter Reps After Russia Spreads Misinformation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You would think that folks tweeting with the hashtags #BoycottNFL and #TakeAKnee would be on opposite sides of an issue that flared up over the weekend. But evidence has emerged that they were potentially being pushed by the same source, Russian Twitter bots designed to spread misinformation and inflame tensions in American society. That revelation came as lawmakers on Capitol Hill met with representatives from Twitter. Let's bring in now Congressman Will Hurd. He's a Republican from Texas who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is investigating Russia and the 2016 election.

Congressman Hurd, thanks so much for being back on the show.

WILL HURD: Always a pleasure being on.

MARTIN: So we have known for a while now that Russia meddled in the U.S. election. But this new revelation is - this isn't just about the election. This is about entities connected to Russia affecting the current public discourse. What do you make of all this?

HURD: Well, it's important to realize - what is the goal of Russia? Vladimir Putin's goal was not to pick a winner or a loser. His goal was to erode trust in our democratic institutions. His goal is to erode trust in the EU, in NATO. These are the things that are keeping him at bay from doing what he's trying to do and that's re-establish, basically, the territorial integrity of the USSR.

And so, you know, there's many ways that you can try to erode trust between the White House, the intelligence community, the American people. And I think this latest is just an example of that. And the Russians are - have been perfecting disinformation for decades. They've been doing it in their - in Russia itself. They've been doing it in Eastern Europe. And now we're just seeing a more aggressive form of this disinformation strategy here in the United States of America.

MARTIN: So if you agree that this is a problem, then what do you do about it? Because Twitter's take seems to be, you know, we're the platform. We are a platform. It is not our business to police everything that happens on the platform, although they've identified, now, these fake accounts. But do you think social media companies in general, Twitter specifically, should be doing more?

HURD: So I think, first, we need to get a granular understanding of the activity - how many accounts? What were they doing? How were they targeting? How were they using the advertising analytics to target people? What decisions were they making to target? - all of that kind of data. And these social media platforms should be retaining that and providing that over to - whether it's investigators on the House or within the executive branch, there should be a partnership on this investigation just like there would be partnership on a terrorism case or on a human trafficking case so that we can better understand the tactics and techniques being used by the bad guys.

Then, we need to have a broader conversation. I think we can start with political conversation. If you were to run political ads on television or radio or in your local newspaper, you know, those things are governed by the FEC, by McCain-Feingold, things like that. And so we need to understand how those rules and regulations should actually translate into a social media world. And that should be a broader conversation. And we should also be thinking about - and I think these technology companies should be thinking about - authentication. So as a public official, I have a verified account - all right? - so there's a little blue checkmark next to my name, saying that some...

MARTIN: You're legit.

HURD: ...Additional efforts went into saying who I am. You know, this is indeed who they say it is.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HURD: Maybe you have something like that for, you know, individuals - that this is indeed a real person and not a fake or made-up entity.

MARTIN: We should also just note, this comes on the heels of the news that Facebook sold thousands of ads to Russia-linked accounts. But also worth noting that on Facebook at least, you have to come up with some identity. And Twitter - I mean, you could just post a fake identity. But there is at least, like, you have to come up with a person to be on the Facebook account. Twitter doesn't have such a thing. I mean, you could just make something up and set up all these bots.

HURD: And maybe, you know - again, I'm not saying change your business strategy completely. But having - you know, maybe it's an orange checkmark for somebody, you know, who's gone through a verification process so that you know exactly...

MARTIN: Yeah.

HURD: ...Who it is.

MARTIN: So people who use social media - I mean, do you think the - it's on all of us to just think more critically about the information that we see? I mean, can you ever really police false information from being posted online?

HURD: You're never going to stop disinformation. Right? But I think talking about it is important. Understanding how - that there's people out there that are trying to influence you in a way - to some end, making sure that we are all a little bit more critical in reviewing the information that we consume on a daily basis - and I think this is something that we should be, you know, talking about in schools when you're learning how to do a research paper that, you know, you're educated about this type of activity going on.

MARTIN: Congressman Will Hurd - he sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Thanks so much for your time this morning, Congressman.

HURD: Always a pleasure. Have a great day.

MARTIN: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.