Facebook and Twitter executives pledged on Wednesday to better protect their social media platforms in the 2018 elections and beyond, and told Congress of aggressive efforts to root out foreign intrusions aimed at sowing divisions in American democracy.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google were threatened by lawmakers from three distinct quarters on Wednesday. A leaked email from the largest US telecom lobbying group tells us where this is headed.
Facebook’s No. 2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, and Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, testified before the Senate intelligence committee, but there was an empty chair for Google’s parent Alphabet, which refused to send its top executive.
One threat came during testimony from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to Congress when Senator Mark Warner told the pair of executives that “Congress is going to have to take action here. The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”
The other threat came after that testimony, when Trump’s Justice Department warned action against leading technology companies for “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas” and hurting competition. Working in concert with this was a third threat, which came from the FCC’s Ajit Pai who targeted Google, Facebook, and Twitter in a Tuesday blog post saying it was time for these companies to have government oversight.
Senators had sharp words for Alphabet CEO Larry Page, who oversees Google. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggested the company might have bailed because it was “arrogant” while Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed outrage over the absence.
Sandberg’s appearance came several months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in highly publicized Capitol Hill hearings. Like Zuckerberg, she acknowledged Facebook’s lag in recognizing Russian efforts to manipulate Facebook during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sandberg detailed Facebook’s efforts to fight the problem with new technologies and manpower.
“We are even more determined than our adversaries, and we will continue to fight back,” Sandberg said.
Dorsey, far less of a public figure than Sandberg, acknowledged that he is “typically pretty shy.” But he was forthcoming with the committee about what his company needs to improve.
Holding his phone at the witness table, he tweeted some of his opening statement: “We aren’t proud of how that free and open exchange has been weaponized and used to distract and divide people, and our nation. We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems we’ve acknowledged,” Dorsey wrote.
He added: “Abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, misinformation campaigns, and divisive filter bubbles — that’s not a healthy public square. Worse, a relatively small number of bad-faith actors were able to game Twitter to have an outsized impact.”
Dorsey was headed later Wednesday to a House committee focused on GOP complaints that social media companies have shown evidence of bias against conservatives. In testimony released before that hearing, Dorsey denied that Twitter uses political ideology to make decisions.
Sandberg, 49, has extensive Washington experience, typically acts as the company’s public face and clearly felt comfortable answering to the senators. In contrast, the bearded and tie-less Dorsey, 41, was quiet but respectful in his answers. Both contrasted with Zuckerberg’s sometimes awkward defiance at the April hearings as he fielded questions from skeptical lawmakers.
The companies have laid out differing approaches in response to the Russian interference. Thirteen Russians were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller this year on charges of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 election by creating fake accounts that pushed divisive issues on social media.
Facebook and Twitter are using increasingly sophisticated technology and artificial intelligence to combat the misuse. But their approaches are different because their platforms are also different, as are their resources, where Twitter is far behind.