WASHINGTON — Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as lawmakers reiterated their concerns over foreign influence of the social media platforms, including Russian interference and recent alarm over Iran.
Just outside a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office building, radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones held court with reporters, vowing to bring down big tech companies, describing them as “authoritarian,” and warning of foreign influence on mainstream media and Hollywood, among other things. His show, “Infowars,” was pulled from an array of platforms for violating the terms of service.
He urged President Donald Trump to use antitrust law to crack down on the companies, but he declined to say when he had last talked to the president.
At the start of the hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee chairman, said that progress had been made by the platforms in detecting foreign interference, citing the recent removal by Facebook, Twitter and Google of Iranian-linked efforts to target Americans via social media.
“Without question, positive things are happening,” he said, adding that “it takes courage to call out a state actor, and your companies have done that.”
Sandberg and Dorsey sat about a yard away from each other, and next to them was an empty chair at the witness table — representing the fact that a representative from Google was not present. Google declined to send Larry Page, as requested by the committee, and instead offered to send its chief legal officer, Kent Walker. But that was rejected by senators.
“I’m deeply disappointed that Google, one of the most influential digital platforms in the world, chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the committee. Other senators also singled out the company for not sending a top-level official. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said it was an “outrage.”
Warner and Burr acknowledged some of the progress that the platforms had made in detecting foreign interference, but Warner said that he doubted that the platforms will “be able to truly address this challenge on your own” and said that congressional action will be necessary.
“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Warner said. “Where we go from here, though, is an open question.”
Warner wrote a white paper outlining potential regulation of technology firms.
“We’re on the cusp of a new era of exploitation, potentially harnessing hacked personal information to enable tailored and targeted disinformation and social engineering efforts. This should frighten is all.”
Republicans also were expected to raise concerns about political bias among the technology giants. Sandberg and Dorsey appeared at the Senate Intelligence Committee in the morning, but Dorsey was scheduled to testify at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing that was to focus on transparency and accountability.
“We aren’t proud of how that free and open exchange has been weaponized and used to distract and divide people and our nation,” Dorsey said, wearing a suit but no tie, and occasionally reading from a cellphone as he addressed the senators. “We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems that we’ve acknowledged.”
“We’re identifying and challenging eight to 10 million suspicious accounts every week, and we’re thwarting over a half million accounts from logging into Twitter every single day,” he said.
Sandberg said Facebook was “too slow to spot this and to act,” but insisted that they have made progress in spotting and blocking bad actors on the platform. She included that Facebook also was blocking “millions of attempts to register false accounts each and every day.”
She also pledged to work with lawmakers and indicated that she was resigned to the possibility of new regulation. “We don’t think it is a question of what regulation. We think it is a question of the right regulation,” she said.
Sandberg and Dorsey also said that they were working on better ways to inform users when they have viewed content that actually came from fake accounts or false front groups. In late July, Facebook removed a fake account trying to organize a counter protest to a white nationalist rally in Washington. Sandberg said that they had informed users who had signed up to participate in the protests.
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Dorsey said that they “are rethinking our incentives that our service is giving to people.”
He said that the number of followers to an account don’t reflect how much a user contributes.
“We are not going to be able to do long term work unless we look at the incentives that our product is telling people do every single day,” he said.
He also said that they were looking at expanded their transparency reporting to include suspensions of accounts.
He spoke of Twitter as contributing to a “healthy public square,” but “not the only one.”
Jones confronts Rubio
Jones had a confrontation with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the committee, just outside of the hearing room. According to reporters who were there, Rubio was giving an interview to journalists, but Jones tried to crash it. At one point, Jones touched Rubio’s shoulder, but the senator warned him not to do so again.
Jones has been in and out of the hearing room, taking his own video of the proceedings on his cell phone. He also been heard muttering about bias against conservatives by tech platforms.
Unlike sanctions imposed by other platforms, Twitter has not taken down Jones’ accounts, but he was suspended for a week.
Sandberg said that at any one time, 3% to 4% of Facebook accounts are “inauthentic accounts.”
Sandberg was responding to questions from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who was asking how much revenue that Facebook would have generated from fake Russian-linked content intended to influence political opinion.
Sandberg, however, could not say what percentage of content is “inorganic,” but said that she would follow up with an answer.
She said that it “doesn’t benefit us to have anything inauthentic on our platforms.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) asked why neither company operates in China. Dorsey and Sandberg each said they were blocked in the country.
“The Chinese government has chosen not to allow our service in China. I think it happened on the same day,” Sandberg said.
“When we were blocked, we decided that it wasn’t a fight worth fighting right now,” Dorsey said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) asked why Facebook and Twitter have not removed Wikileaks of Julian Assange from their platforms.
“I am not going to defend Wikileaks and I am not going to defend any page of [the] platform,” Sandberg said, but she said that it has not been taken down because it does not violate terms of service.
Dorsey said the same thing, but said that they would be willing to talk to law enforcement if that changes.
Justice Department response
The DOJ issued a statement after the hearing indicating that they are concerned about censorship by social media companies.
“We listened to today’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms closely,” the DOJ said. “The Attorney General has convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”