Compared to some congressional hearings, the latest open session of the Senate intelligence committee looking into the use of social networks as a platform for disinformation—the fourth in a series—was a mostly sedate affair. No one trotted out poster boards with examples of ads bought by a Russian “troll factory,” as they did at the hearings last November, and most of the comments from senators were polite and conciliatory. There was one verbal tussle between Infowars conspiracy monger Alex Jones and Senator Marco Rubio, in which Jones called Rubio a “frat boy” and told him to “go back to your bathhouse,” after challenging him about alleged shadowbanning of conservatives, but that took place in the corridor outside the hearing.
Senator Burr, the chairman of the committee, opened by saying social media has a “boundless potential for good,” but that the country has also learned “how vulnerable social media is to corruption and misuse,” and that the examples of that happening during the election in 2016 are “chilling, and a threat to our democracy.” However, he also congratulated both Facebook and Twitter on the work they have been doing to remove bad actors. (Facebook recently shut down over 600 fake or “inauthentic” accounts, many of which appeared to be linked to Iran, and Twitter blocked several hundred as well). Both Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner took pains to thank Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for coming.
The most controversial aspect of the hearing was the elephant in the room, or rather the elephant not in the room—namely, the empty chair that was supposed to be filled by a senior executive from Google. Both Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Alphabet CEO Larry Page refused to attend, and the Senate committee rejected the offer to have VP Kent Walker attend instead (although he did offer written testimony, which was also published on a Google blog). Given the largely polite nature of the discussion, it’s worth wondering whether Google did itself more harm by not attending than it would have by appearing. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey said much that was noteworthy, but both at least gave the impression they care about the issues at hand.
Note to Google: showing up seems to be good for Facebook and Twitter. Lawmakers commending them for work done to take down fake accounts. This is hardly a bruising hearing for them so far.
— CeciliaKang (@ceciliakang) September 5, 2018
There were few mea culpas from the platforms about how they should have acted faster to crack down on misinformation (Sandberg said: “We were too slow to spot this, and too slow to act”), and little discussion of why it took almost a decade for both of these massive and well-funded platforms to spend even a fraction of their resources on figuring out how bad actors such as Russian counter-intelligence agencies or Iranian political factions might use them for their own ends. In a recent interview, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted he hadn’t thought about that kind of thing until it was too late—that he had only focused on the good things that Facebook might bring to the world. But why?
What seems likely, as Senator Kamala Harris suggested during her questioning of Sandberg, is that the business model of the platforms, one based on advertising revenue and therefore on volume of clicks and “engagement” at any cost, benefited so much from all of the misinformation and fake activity on Facebook and Twitter that neither had any real incentive to care. It’s certainly not the case that they didn’t know about it, because outside security experts of all kinds have been warning both networks about such activity for years, and got little or no interest from senior executives until recently.
Now @jack is speaking; acknowledges that his platform is weaponized, is listing the litany of ways that our private public square is broken bc of algorithms and twitter's many years of inaction despite people shouting this at them (ok, I added the last part myself) #techhearings
— Renee DiResta (@noUpside) September 5, 2018
Both platforms have also taken full advantage of the confusion and debate over whether they are or should be thought of as publishers, or merely as conduits for information. In his opening statement, Senator Burr said the difficulty of defining who is a publisher and who is merely a distributor of content “has led to a kind of convenient identity crisis, where decisions about what is allowable on your platforms have been too reactive” and not given enough thought. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Facebook bans Alex Jones (finally, after multiple violations of its terms of service) but Twitter does not, and no one really knows why. The Wall Street Journal says Dorsey personally intervened to keep Jones on the platform, but Dorsey denies this, and so does Twitter’s head of trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde.
No one gave a clear answer to this. When asked whether it is wrong to declare, as Jones has done, that the families of victims of a mass shooting are “crisis actors,” Sandberg said she found it personally disturbing, and Dorsey mostly avoided answering the question. Thankfully, by that time, Jones himself was no longer in the committee room, having left it to rant at Senator Rubio in the corridor.