Tech giants to promise Congress that election interference won’t happen again

5 Sep 2018

US Senate committee hearing room, Washington DC. Image: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock

In the big tech hearings at the US Congress, Facebook, Google and Twitter will promise to keep the trolls and Russian interference at bay.

Facebook, Twitter and Google will be at pains to point out to Congress today (5 September) that election interference will not happen again on their platforms, if they can help it.

The tech giants are to answer tough and probing questions from lawmakers about electoral interference and the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw a savvy political analyst firm manipulate social media to allegedly sway outcomes in the US presidential elections and the UK Brexit vote.

‘We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us’

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will testify today before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about foreign manipulation of social media sites.

Dorsey will also appear alone at a House Energy and Commerce Committee about content moderation on Twitter.

A deadly new epoch in elections and democracy

It is understood that at least 87m people had their data harvested from Facebook because of the use of an app called This Is Your Digital Life, which took advantage of privacy weaknesses in Facebook’s app ecosystem.

In prepared testimony, Sandberg said: “We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us.

“We’re getting better at finding and combating our adversaries, from financially motivated troll farms to sophisticated military intelligence operations.”

Dorsey said in a prepared testimony that was published yesterday: “Twitter is approaching these challenges with a simple question: How do we earn more trust from the people using our service?

“We know the way to earn more trust around how we make decisions on our platform is to be as transparent as possible.”

Washington lawmakers will not be impressed with Google, however, whose co-founder Larry Page has decided not to testify, sending instead a written testimony from Google’s senior vice-president for global affairs, Kent Walker.

Feelings against Google will no doubt have been stoked by recent comments from US president Donald Trump, who alleged that social media sites and internet searches are suppressing news favourable to his regime.

In a blogpost, Walker said: “We believe that we have a responsibility to prevent the misuse of our platforms, and we take that very seriously. Our efforts in this area started many years before the 2016 election. We work to detect and minimise opportunities for manipulation and abuse, constantly tackling new threats and bad actors that arise.

“Google was founded with a mission to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful; the abuse of the tools and platforms we build is antithetical to that mission.

“While the nature of our services and the way we run our advertising operations appears to have limited the amount of state-sponsored interference on our platforms, no system is perfect – and we are committed to taking continuing action to address the issue,” Walker said.

There is a lot riding on these hearings when you consider that between the lines, Trump appeared to be suggesting that new legislation could be enacted to regulate social media and internet players – a situation that makes the no-show by Google all the more perplexing.

US Senate committee hearing room, Washington DC. Image: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock

Updated, 9.10am, 5 September 2018: This article was updated to remove a reference to Larry Page as Google CEO. He is the CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years