Colin Stretch speaking to a Senate subcommittee (screengrab from C-SPAN)
As lawyers from Twitter, Facebook and Google faced Congressional grilling over how their social media platforms might have been used by Russian actors to potentially sway last year’s election, observers took to Twitter on Halloween to pick apart the testimony of Facebook executive and general counsel Colin Stretch. Here’s five things to know:
1. Facebook Assigned Stretch to Speak to the Senate in Mid-October
The possibility of Russian influence swaying the 2016 presidential election has been discussed since before the election even took place; in July 2016, for example, then-candidate Trump notoriously invited Russian hackers to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, considered especially shocking at the tie because even then, Candidate Trump was frequently suspected of being too chummy with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In September, the-FBI director James Comey said that the FBI had discovered attempted hacks of state voting systems in over a dozen states, “beyond those we knew about in July and August.” Investigators said they suspected Russia to be behind those attacks.
But Russia was also suspected of running propaganda campaigns on various social media accounts. (Indeed, on Oct. 30, the day before social media companies started their congressional testimony, Twitter announced that it had discovered and suspended over 2,700 accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. That same day, Facebook admitted that up to 126 million people in the United States might have seen posts produced by agents with Russian government backing.)
The House Intelligence Committee scheduled its first hearing on possible Russian election-meddling last March. In early October, Facebook and Twitter both agreed to send representatives to give public testimony to a congressional probe into possible Russian election interference, and on Oct. 19, Facebook said that the company representative who’d testify would not be CEO Mark Zuckerberg or COO Sheryl Sandberg, but Colin Stretch, the company’s top attorney.
2. Stretch Told the Senate ‘There is no Place on Facebook for Terrorism or Hate’
In his opening statement to the committee on Halloween, Stretch said “There is no -place on Facebook for terrorism or hate.”
This apparently is an aspirational rather than descriptive statement, for in early October Facebook gave Congress “thousands” of ads linked to Russian operations, and admitted many of those ads “appear to amplify racial and social divisions.”
Of course, Facebook is hardly alone in posting apparent Russian ads. Last month, Twitter admitted that accounts linked to Russia Today alone bought $270,000 worth of ads during election season.
In addition to Facebook’s stated lack of room for hate, Stretch also told the hearing that any foreign interference in U.S. elections is “reprehensible” and goes against the company’s values.
Despite this, Stretch admitted, even after the election Facebook saw continued activity with the apparent goal of “fomenting discord about the validity” of Trump’s election.
3. Stretch is Married and has Three Children
According to his biography on the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity, Stretch lives in San Mateo, California, with his wife and three children.
His wife is Alyse Graham (who kept her name after marriage). The couple married in February 2000, when they were already socially prominent enough for the New York Times to report on their union. At the time, Graham was an assistant U.S. attorney, while Stretch was an associate at the law firm of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd & Evans. Earlier in his legal career, he clerked for Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer. Stretch joined Facebook in 2010 and because the company’s vice-president and general counsel in July 2013.
Currently, Graham is an “educator and attorney” according to her LinkedIn profile, and spent three years teaching Spanish and English-language middle-school science classes.
4. Stretch Claimed Facebook is ‘Determined to Prevent [Election Interference] From Happening Again’
The day before Stretch’s congressional testimony, Facebook and the other two social media companies gave prepared remarks to Congress. The New York Times obtained copies, and reports that Stretch’s prepared remarks called the Russian Facebook posts (which are distinct from actual Facebook ads) “an insidious attempt to drive people apart,” with particular focus on racial, religious, gun-rights and gay and transgender issues — in other words, highly controversial hot-button topics.
Stretch’s prepared remarks also assured Congress that Facebook is “determined to prevent it from happening again.”
The information in those prepared comments sent to Congress also confirmed that Facebook know of Russian interference efforts before the election last Nov. 8.
5. Despite Everything, Social Media Cannot Promise Such Meddling Won’t Happen Again
Of course, Colin Stretch of Facebook was not the only social media executive to answer questions at the Senate subcommittee on Halloween; Sean Edgett from Twitter and Richard Salgado from Google were there as well.
Despite the information the companies had already released about Russian ad campaigns and Russian troll accounts on their platforms, Stretch and his colleagues admitted that they cannot be certain they’ve identified the full extent of Russian interference in the campaign, and do not have the technology to guarantee such interference won’t happen again.
Subcommittee chairman Lindsey Graham said that “The manipulation of social media sites by terrorist organizations and foreign governments is one of the greatest challenges to American democracy and a significant threat to our national security in the 21st century,” and the hearing would determine if “legislative solutions are necessary and can be constructed consistent with our Constitution and values.
At the hearing, Stretch indicated that his company would welcome discussion of new legislation — though he did not endorse a specific proposal that would require online political advertising to meet the same disclosure agreements as broadcast advertising. (Facebook has opposed such requirements for years.)
When Louisiana Senator John Kennedy asked if countries other than Russia had bought ads in last year’s election (specifically naming China, Turkmenistan and North Korea), Stretch said he was not aware of other foreign actors. Kennedy suggested it might be impossible for Facebook to know for certain with 5 million” different advertisers, and Stretch admitted “We’re not able to see beyond the activity we see on the platform.”
That said, when shown an ad which had been paid for in Russian rubles, Stretch again admitted “That advertisement has no place on Facebook.”