5 takeaways from Facebook and Twitter’s congressional grilling

6 Sep 2018

US Capitol building. Image: Andrea Izzoti/Shutterstock

Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey both testified during the four-hour hearing at US Congress, but what did we actually learn?

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced a relatively muted Congress for several hours yesterday (5 September). Compared to Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg’s more aggressive questioning earlier this year, the atmosphere was less adversarial this time around.

At yesterday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, the two tech leaders informed lawmakers of the latest updates surrounding both firms’ efforts to address foreign interference and so-called ‘fake news’ on their platforms. Dorsey also appeared at a separate individual hearing later in the day.

Google’s glaring absence

Google remained a no-show, which meant there was far less discussion about antitrust issues, an area the search giant is at the epicentre of. While the other two invited companies sent major business leaders, Google only offered its chief legal officer and senior global policy vice-president, Kent Walker. This was not enough for lawmakers, so Google’s chair was conspicuously empty.

Last week, senator Mark Warner criticised Google’s absence in an interview with Wired: “This is a hearing that’s going to talk about solutions. I think it speaks volumes that Google doesn’t want to be part of that discussion.”

Regulation looks likely

Senators repeatedly stressed that regulation was possibly on the cards, but how this happens is yet to be decided.

Warner said that social media companies were “caught flat-footed” by the misinformation campaigns, while senator Richard Burr mulled over what regulation would look like. He said: “If the answer is regulation, let’s have an honest dialogue about what that looks like. If the key is more resourcing, or legislation that facilitates information sharing and government cooperation, let’s get that out there.”

Lawmakers also noted that both companies had made strides in creating improvements to their services since the US presidential election in 2016.

Twitter – private company, public square?

Dorsey faced a great deal more criticism when it came to the issue of bias on platforms, with several Republican lawmakers pressing the Twitter CEO about alleged bias against right-wing figures. This is something that Dorsey has vehemently denied.

Dorsey said that Twitter was designed to function as a “public square” but admitted that the company was “unprepared and ill-equipped” for the manipulation strategies carried out on the platform. He said: “We aren’t proud of how that free and open exchange has been weaponised and used to distract and divide people, and our nation.” He added that “tectonic shifts” were on the cards for how Twitter operates in future.

Microtargeting criticism is not going away

Election microtargeting came to the fore once again as lawmakers discussed the possibility of voter suppression by targeting certain demographics with ads. Sandberg said Facebook was using a mix of automated systems and human moderators to tackle the problem. She added: “There is a long history in this country of trying to suppress civil rights and voting rights, and that activity has no place on Facebook. Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook.”

Sandberg also repeated the company’s admissions that it was too slow to spot misinformation campaigns. She said: “That’s on us. This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love.”

Both Sandberg and Dorsey discussed the need to tackle ‘deepfake’ videos and automated accounts.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones made an appearance

Outside of the general discussions, Infowars conspiracy peddler Alex Jones also made an appearance at the hearings, along with several other far-right figures. Jones spoke angrily about his recent suspension from several platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, for violating their terms of use.

A far-right activist, Laura Loomer, also shouted accusations of bias at Dorsey, briefly interrupting proceedings. She is best known for posting Islamophobic content on her social media profiles.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects