To put it in the simplest terms: Senators are unhappy with what they've been hearing from Facebook, Twitter, and Google executives, who are currently being questioned about how their platforms were exploited by Russian agents and interests to influence the 2016 election.
According to the Associated Press's account of the proceedings, Senator Al Franken "shook his head" at one point after the companies refused "to commit to not accepting political ads bought with North Korean currency." That particular line of questioning followed one in which the Senators on the intelligence committee grilled Facebook's general counsel, Colin Stretch, and Google's Law Enforcement and Information Security Director, Richard Salgado, about how they could have identified the accounts responsible for the ads long before the 2016 election season.
Franken said, "People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They are political ads. You put billions of data points together all the time. ... Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can't put together rubles with a political ad and go like, 'Hmmm, those data points spell out something pretty bad?'" CNet shared Stretch's response, which was to say, "In hindsight, we should have had a broader lens. There were signals we missed."
It was only two weeks ago that Senators Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner introduced the "Honest Ads Act," legislation that they say would regulate political ads on social media, much like how political ads are already regulated on television and radio. Both Facebook and Twitter have unveiled plans to change their policies around ads to increase transparency, with the former denying that their changes were a response to this potential legislation. Klobuchar commented on these new changes, calling them "patchwork," implying that they still aren't enough. She asked the execs whether they would support the legislation, but they remained noncommittal. Stretch said, "We stand ready to work with you and your co-sponsors on that legislation going forward."
As well, news that Facebook had initially vastly underestimated the number of ad impressions garnered by those Russian ad accounts was brought up, as Kennedy asked whether there were any more Facebook accounts connected to North Korea or China. Wired writes that Stretch said he wasn't aware of any, to which Kennedy replied: "How could you be aware? The truth of the matter is you have 5 million advertisers that change every month, every minute, probably every second. You don't have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is today, right now." Stretch replied, "To your question about seeing behind the platform to understand if there are shell corporations, of course the answer is no."
Keep in mind that the changes introduced by Facebook and Twitter say that both of the companies will be taking on a lot more responsibility in verifying and vetting political advertising accounts, increasing not only their workload (given that Facebook alone has over 5 million advertising accounts) but also their potential liability. Moreover, neither company had any hard policy changes to report regarding "issue-based ads," which, according to the Washington Post, were more effective at sowing discord and discontent amongst American citizens, further polarizing an election where one candidate, Trump, ran on a platform of grievances and polemics.
Further, the use of social media for political interests is a commonplace practice as of late, which is something very obvious the Senators on the panel. Wired pointed out this interesting (though perhaps a bit ironic) fact, highlighting tweets and Facebook posts from Senate committee members Warner, Klobuchar, Lindsey Graham, and John Kennedy, all of whom reportedly had aides tweeting and posting about the hearing as it went on.
The hearing is scheduled for three parts, and we'll update this post as we hear more.