Big Tech braces for presidential debates, target of Russian trolls

Silicon Valley is preparing for its first high-profile challenge of the 2020 presidential campaign: the Democratic presidential debates. Facebook and Twitter are taking additional steps to monitor debate activity on their platform next week and the Democratic National Committee will have a team scanning social media for unusual activity, CNN Business has learned.

Data the social media companies shared with Congress show, that during the 2016 campaign, the Russian troll group later charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller sent thousands of social media posts on debate nights. The US intelligence community has warned that Russian efforts to spread disinformation through social media have continued “virtually unabated” since 2016.

Facebook and Twitter told CNN Business their companies had taken steps to plan for debate night, the first high-profile event of the 2020 election campaign. YouTube and its parent company Google did not detail any specific steps.

Facing Congressional and public pressure in 2017, tech companies began releasing details of posts sent by the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll group.

Patrick Warren and Darren Linvill, professors at Clemson University, have studied the trove of Russian posts. They found that the trolls took particular interest in primary and presidential debates.

During the final presidential debates, Warren said, the trolls sent more than 1,000 tweets per hour, mostly around hashtags like #AlternativeDebateTopics or #BetterAlternativeToDebates.

“The trolls would create and highlight the most divisive threads in the conversation around these hashtags, with an aim of dragging the conversation in that more divisive direction,” Warren said.

Facebook said it will have a dedicated team monitoring for content that violates its policies in the lead-up, during, and immediately after the debates.

Spokespeople for Facebook and Twitter said that their companies had talked with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about the issue of debate nights.

Both Facebook and Twitter said they expect their teams to cooperate with each other on debate night — part of ongoing cooperation between the companies on tackling disinformation, a Facebook spokesperson said. The first two debates will take place next Wednesday and Thursday in Miami.

YouTube and its parent company Google provided no information about their debate night plans, nor would they say if they had a specific debate plan. A YouTube spokesperson pointed to a whitepaper Google published on tackling disinformation.

The DNC has a team that is monitoring disinformation daily and is alerting the social media platforms to suspected disinformation operations and false information going viral.

Facebook and Twitter have investigated and taken action on some accounts as a result of tips from the DNC, spokespeople for the companies confirmed to CNN Business.

That cooperation is set to continue for debate night. A DNC spokesperson confirmed that the committee will have a team in place monitoring social media activity and will be in touch with the tech platforms.

Facebook and Twitter recently took part in a seminar the DNC held for presidential campaigns, at which the companies provided information about how campaigns can share details of suspicious activity with them, the companies confirmed. Those details have also been shared with the Republican National Committee, the spokesperson added.

The DNC says it has contacted presidential campaigns reminding them how they can detect and respond to social media attacks.

In addition to their debate night plans, both Facebook and Twitter pointed to their ongoing efforts to combat disinformation, many of which were put in place following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“It’s always an election year on Twitter,” a spokeswoman for the company told CNN. “We’re a global service and we think globally. We will take the learnings from every recent election — including the EU, India, and the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections — and use them to improve our election integrity work for 2020.”