US to brief senators on foreign online influence focused on Israel, Ukraine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden's administration is holding a joint classified briefing for members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence and Commerce committees Wednesday on recent foreign online influence focused on Israel/Gaza and the Ukraine conflict.

The closed-door briefing organized by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will also look at Chinese, Russian, and Iranian actors "working to undermine U.S. interests through online activity," according to a notice sent to senators. Some lawmakers have in recent weeks accused TikTok of boosting pro-Palestinian videos, a charge the Chinese-owned social media site vigorously denies.

Proposed legislation has stalled in Congress that would give the Biden administration new powers to block Americans from using foreign communications technology such as TiTok. The bill was introduced by Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner and Republican John Thune and 24 other senators in March called the Restrict Act.

Warner told Reuters a prime reason such legislation was needed was a recent flurry of misinformation about the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel in which around 1,200 were killed. Warner said some misinformation social media posts suggest the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas did not happen or were started by Israel.

"We have no framework to look at misinformation that may originate from tech companies" in hostile countries, Warner said. "Sometimes, you have to strike while the iron is hot" saying the current misinformation could be enough to prompt action.

Republican Senator Jerry Moran, who backs the Restrict Act, told Reuters recent online misinformation "will be another impetus" to get Congress to act.

A separate similar bill to give the Biden administration new powers is being drafted by Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell called the Guard Act.

ByteDance-owned TikTok said its recommendation algorithm "doesn't 'take sides' and has rigorous measures in place to prevent manipulation." The company said between Oct. 7-31 it removed 730,000 videos for violating hateful behavior rules.

Last week, Republican Senator Josh Hawley urged Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to ban all ByteDance-controlled apps currently available to U.S. users, citing what he said was an "increase in anti-Israel, pro-Hamas content on the platform."

Reuters and other outlets reported in March the Biden administration demanded that TikTok's Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a possible U.S. ban.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Diane Craft and David Gregorio)