Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer defended himself Thursday against a report that he encouraged his colleagues to go easy on Facebook amid investigations into the social media giant’s role in spreading Russian misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign.
According to the New York Times, Schumer urged Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to find ways to work with Facebook rather than harm it.
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said in a statement Thursday that the New York senator “has worked aggressively to push Facebook to do more to purge fake accounts and bots used by the right wing and Russians to perpetuate a disinformation campaign and interfere with our elections.”
“Schumer has worried that Facebook would bow to pressure from Republicans, who oppose the purging of the fake accounts and bots, and has urged Senator Warner and the Senate Intelligence committee to make this the priority in their ongoing investigation of the company,” Goodman added.
Warner declined to answer questions about the Times’ claims on Thursday.
“I’m not going to talk about any private conversations I had with the leader,” Warner told reporters. “He was very aware of the fact that our committee has been relentless, and has still got a lot of questions that need to get answered.”
He added that the Times’ description of Facebook’s efforts to sidestep questions about Russian meddling efforts conducted via its platforms, including Instagram, validated congressional inquiries.
“Frankly, but for the Intelligence inquiry and constant pressure, I think we would be even more in the dark,” Warner said. “And I’m happy to see that there’s greater cooperation now, but clearly this was the case as we suspected that for a number of months, they just hoped this problem was going away.”
Warner’s House intelligence committee counterpart, California Rep. Adam Schiff, told CNN that he didn’t know whether the claims about Schumer are “accurate or not.”
Schiff added that he “certainly” intends to talk to Facebook about the Times’ “concerning” report.
“They were obviously slow to come to grips with what the Russians were doing on their platform and the misuse of their platform,” said Schiff. “If they were deliberately slow to convey that information to us, that’s deeply disturbing.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters in a conference call Thursday that the company had been too slow to deal with the Russian disinformation problem on its platform in 2016, but said it was “simply untrue” to suggest that he and other executives “weren’t interested in knowing the truth.”
The intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections in part by using social media platforms like Facebook changed the company’s relationship with Washington.
Many members of Congress appear to remain unsure of how to hold the company accountable. During Mark Zuckerberg’s April hearing before senators — the most high-profile showdown between Facebook and Washington — some of the members of Congress seemed either unfamiliar with its business or to treat it with deference.
Schumer has publicly been a Facebook fan.
In March, he told the tech website Recode that Facebook is a “very powerful force.”
“I think overall it’s been a very positive force,” said Schumer. “I think now people are taking advantage of the openness of the net, and Facebook has an obligation to try and deal with it. I’ve talked to them. I truly believe they want to. I truly believe they know that their future is at stake with this. I also believe it’s a hard thing to do.”