Twitter has deleted massive amounts of user data that might have helped federal investigators track Russia's role in spreading propaganda aimed at destabilizing the U.S. election system last year.
Key members of congressional committees believe Moscow manipulated Twitter by placing ads, initiating hashtag trends, creating countless automated accounts and tasking them with spreading misinformation – intended mostly to energize Donald Trump's online base of support.
Politico reported Friday that those probing how it happened and what Russian agents accomplished need to sift through mountains of data that Twitter collects on the platform's activity – but the company's own policy prevents it from keeping copies of anything its users delete.
That goes for individual tweets, ad campaigns and even entire user accounts –meaning that a considerable amount of invaluable information will never be recovered.
The scale of the Kremlin's involvement in online election manipulation last year may never be known since Twitter routinely erases data as soon as its users delete things
President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, aided in part by propaganda avalanches directed from Moscow
Twitter has already said it found RT, the Kremlin's propaganda outlet, spent $274,100 on advertisements and promoted 1,823 tweets potentially aimed at the U.S. market last year
Another reason investigators may be out of luck is that Russian cyber spies typically delete their digital fingerprints to remove traces of their activity after they've accomplished a goal.
Twitter, Facebook and Google executives have been summoned to Washington to testify in a November 1 hearing about online Russian political influence campaigns.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said Thursday in Washington that 'things happened on our platform in this election that shouldn't have happened, especially – and very troubling – foreign interference in a democratic election.'
But she insisted that Hillary Clinton supporters shouldn't blame the social media giant for helping Donald Trump win the White House.
'The role Facebook plays in elections goes beyond any one campaign, any one country,' she said.
Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called Twitter's relatively meager disclosures 'deeply disappointing'
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin's bullet-ridden faces…
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Twitter's user data policy dictates that '[o]nce an account has been deactivated, there is a very brief period in which we may be able to access account information, including Tweets.'
But '[c]ontent deleted by account holders (e.g., Tweets) is generally not available,” the policy adds.
Twitter suspended hundreds of Russian-linked accounts last month and pledged to ramp up enforcement of its spam rules.
Although the company's disclosures in briefings to U.S. congressional staff and a public blog post were its most detailed to date on the issue, Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the company's statements 'deeply disappointing.'
Warner said Twitter officials had not answered many questions about the Russian use of the platform and that it was still subject to foreign manipulation.
Twitter has been criticized as being too lax in policing fake or abusive accounts.
Colin Crowell, Twitter's vice president of public policy, was among company representatives who met behind closed doors with Senate Intelligence Committee aides in late September.
This is one of the ad known to have been funded by Russia on Facebook, but the equivalent 'promoted tweets' on Twitter have yet to be identified
The pressure on social media companies reflects growing concern among lawmakers in both parties that social networks may have played a key role in Moscow's attempts to spread disinformation and propaganda to sow political discord in the United States and help elect Trump.
Moscow denies any such activity and Trump has denied any talk of collusion.
The San Francisco-based company said Russian media outlet RT, which is close to the Kremlin, had spent $274,100 on Twitter advertisements and promoted 1,823 tweets potentially aimed at the U.S. market.
Those ad buys alone topped the $100,000 that Facebook has linked to a Russian 2016 election propaganda operation, a revelation that prompted calls from some Democrats for new disclosure rules for such political ads.
Twitter said it would toughen restrictions on suspect spammers, for example by reducing the time that suspicious accounts stay visible during company investigations.
Twitter allows fictitious names and some automation by accounts, making it harder to distinguish improper activity.
Figures in the company's blog showed the scale of the issue. In battling the automated promotion of trending topics, which get displayed to many users, the company said it counteracted 130,000 accounts daily.