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Twitter's explanation on Russia-linked accounts 'inadequate', says senator


Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Senator Mark Warner (AP)

Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Senator Mark Warner (AP)

Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Senator Mark Warner (AP)

Twitter told congressional investigators it has suspended at least two dozen accounts that may have been tied to Russia, but the information shared by the social media giant at the briefing was described as "frankly inadequate".

Virginia Senator Mark Warner said Twitter's explanations of its actions against Russia-linked accounts were "deeply disappointing", and he suggested the company does not understand the seriousness of Congress' investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr Warner made the comments after company executives met behind closed doors with staff members of both the Senate and House intelligence committees for several hours.

The disclosures by Twitter follow Facebook revelations that some 3,000 ads were purchased by entities with likely ties to Russia and as congressional investigators are examining the spread of false news stories and propaganda on social media during the campaign.

The committees have been investigating Russia's election meddling and any possible coordination with associates of Republican Donald Trump in his campaign against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. They have specifically been looking at Twitter and Facebook and their roles in the spread of misinformation and propaganda during the campaign.

The company said in a blog post that it found 22 accounts corresponding to about 450 Facebook accounts that were likely operated out of Russia and pushed divisive social and political issues during the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook has said those accounts were responsible for buying about 3,000 ads worth about 100,000 US dollars (£74,485)

Twitter says it also found an additional 179 related accounts and took action against ones that violated its rules. The company did not specific how many of those accounts were suspended or the type of action taken.

A person familiar with Twitter's response to the accounts says that most of those accounts were found to have violated the platform's rules. The person did not know if all 179 had been suspended from the service.

Mr Warner said that Twitter's findings were merely "derivative" of Facebook's work, and "showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions".

He said the meeting underscored the need for the company to come forward in a public hearing. Both the House and Senate intelligence panels are inviting Twitter, Facebook and Google to testify this fall.

Thursday's closed meetings lasted several hours. The company's executives included Colin Crowell, a vice president of public policy, government and corporate philanthropy; Carlos Monje, director of public policy and philanthropy; attorney Elizabeth Banker, and Emily Horne, global policy communications director.

Twitter said it also provided congressional investigators with a "round-up" of ads from accounts used by Russia's state-sponsored news network, RT. The company said in a blog post that RT spent 274,100 US dollars (£204,000) on ads targeted to markets in the US during 2016. Twitter provided the ads, which came from three handles used by RT, to the congressional investigators. Most tweets from the accounts promoted news stories.

In its blog post, Twitter said it has worked harder to detect and prevent spam and "malicious automation". The company said it removed tweets that were attempting to suppress legitimate votes by telling people they could vote for Mrs Clinton by texting. The company said that its automated systems catch more than 3.2 million suspicious accounts globally per week, which is more than double the amount the company detected this time last year.

The top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, California Representative Adam Schiff, showed less frustration after his own panel's staff was briefed by Twitter, saying the meeting was "good but preliminary".

"I think there are challenges to Twitter in its forensic investigation because Twitter users don't provide the same background information that Facebook users do," Mr Schiff said. "At the same time I don't think we've more than scratched the surface in terms of our understanding how the Russians may have used that platform."