As Facebook and Twitter once again expanded their estimates of how much fake content infects their platforms, the chief executives of both firms were reluctant to commit at a Senate hearing Wednesday to countermeasures that might jeopardize their profits in the name of protecting what they described as a digital public square.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the Senate intelligence committee that the social-media giant is now blocking “millions of attempts to register false accounts every single day.” It was the latest revision offered by a company that a year ago bounded its assessment of surreptitious Russian leverage of Facebook to impact the 2016 election at 3,000 ads connected to 470 fake accounts from the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency troll farm.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told the panel that the microblogging platform was identifying “eight to ten million” suspicious accounts every week. Just last October, Senate investigators expressed frustration to The Daily Beast that Twitter had only provided 201 accounts flagged for spreading Russian propaganda – something the panel’s vice chairman, Mark Warner of Virginia, called “inadequate on almost every level.”
Sandberg and Dorsey fielded aggressive but polite questioning from senators whose inquiry into Russian election interference has expanded into the broader question of social media-borne propaganda and data manipulation. Unlike the previous three hearings the Senate intelligence committee has held over the past year about the mass political implications of social-media misconduct, Russian electoral interference was a minor theme on Wednesday.
But Dorsey and Sandberg weren’t the only ones the panel invited.
Amidst recent and widespread concern about the use of YouTube as a propaganda and conspiracy vector, Google’s senior leadership opted not to appear on Capitol Hill, something that chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina said “disappointed” him. Warner said he wanted to question Google on a number of issues, including conspiracy theories appearing in Google search, hacking attempts on Gmail, and the spread of Russian disinformation on YouTube.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, said that Google, one of the largest and most influential companies on the planet, was either “arrogant” or unwilling to face tough questioning – questioning that had, as a backdrop, the prospect of the federal government regulating social media for the first time.
“The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end. Where we go from here is an open question,” Warner said.
But while both Sandberg and Dorsey hastened to assure senators of their companies’ swift and ongoing action to combat inauthenticity on their platforms, they elided the far thornier question of their responsibilities to ensure the integrity of what high-profile users and paid political advertisers present to millions of people. Both Dorsey and Sandberg sounded like owners of bars whose bouncers now aggressively check IDs at the door but consider ugly and abusive behavior that takes place inside their doors to be beyond their purview.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine asked Dorsey about the fraudulent account @Ten_GOP, which pushed what she called “conspiracy theories.” Such theories included a fake story of voter fraud on behalf of Hillary Clinton in Florida’s Broward County the month before the presidential election. “We need to tell people that they were taken in, or innocent victims of a foreign influence campaign,” Collins said.
But Dorsey, who spoke of Twitter in the high-minded language of a “digital public square,” only addressed half of her question. “Transparency is a big part of what we need,” he said, eliding the substance of what @Ten_GOP tweeted.
While Sandberg gave substantially more detailed policy answers about data-integrity steps Facebook is taking – steps that have followed revelations of bulk manipulation of Facebook user data – she sounded similar notes to Dorsey. “Our focus is on inauthenticity,” she told Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. Like Dorsey, Sandberg said Facebook is expanding a reliance on artificial intelligence to flag inauthentic accounts at scale – the latest indication that both companies are allergic to human editorial judgment, despite being, along with the absent Google, the most powerful distribution networks for contemporary news in the 21st century.
But also like her Twitter counterpart, Sandberg displayed Facebook’s deep discomfort with exercising editorial judgment to combat the pervasive spread of conspiracy theories on the platform. It relies on “third-party fact checkers” to combat misinformation, Sandberg said, since “we don’t believe we should be the arbiter” of what’s true on Facebook.
Dorsey, often sounding more like an academic than a CEO, repeated a mantra: Twitter is committed to examining how it “incentivizes” what he called healthy or unhealthy behavior. “Not everyone is going to choose healthy participation in the short term,” Dorsey lamented, entirely eliding the company’s responsibility to police its platform against abuse, despite a different mantra from millions of his users: ban the Nazis.
It wasn’t the only structural issue left untouched. Elements of the far right have been assertive for years of accusing both social media companies of “shadowbanning” or censoring right-wing content, with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham recently suggesting the government ought to treat Facebook and Twitter companies like public utilities. Dorsey was scheduled to testify before a House panel on Wednesday afternoon that promises to feature right-wing grievances in abundance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in May met with high-profile conservatives, which prompted suspicions that the company is more interested in mollifying the right than confronting the abuse and misinformation emanating from some of its precincts.
Highlighting the tensions over how social media networks handle disinformation from the right, a number of conservative internet personalities who have faced bans or other social media punishments rotated through the audience during the hearing. The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars, who was banned from Facebook and YouTube in August – years after he fraudulently called the Sandy Hook mass shooting a hoax – fumed outside the hearing room.
“This is 100 times worse than anything Joseph McCarthy did,” Jones said.
The concerns about how Facebook handles users’ information are tied to the companies’ fundamental business models. Sandberg brushed off Warner’s suggestions that Facebook ought to publish public monetary values of a user’s data. As Facebook makes its money from its ability to leverage scads of information from its billions of users to advertisers at a unique scale, Sandberg continued to insist that Facebook users “should understand what information is being used, how it’s used and the controls they’ve had. We’ve worked hard to simplify this.” When Warner asked if there was private information users shouldn’t be allowed to give Facebook, Sandberg replied that “there are many ways users have control over what they do.”
That’s consistent with Facebook’s longtime position that all usage reflects deliberate, implied consent for data collection. But the Cambridge Analytica revelations about third-party data harvesting – something Facebook’s evolving privacy rules have since curtailed – strongly suggest that’s untrue in practice. Similarly, Dorsey’s widely noted reluctance to ban hostile Twitter accounts speaks to Twitter’s inability to make money off its platform, leaving it reliant on raising capital – an investment model which sees user growth as paramount, something at cross-purposes with aggressively enforcing its terms of service. Alex Jones, with nearly 900,000 followers, remains on Twitter.
Burr praised Sandberg and Dorsey for some of the steps their companies had taken against foreign influence campaigns, but he still left the door open for future government intervention. Warner, a Democrat, said he thought that Congress “is going to have to act.” Burr, a Republican, suggested some form regulation would be appropriate, urging “honest dialogue [about] what that looks like.”
“I’m skeptical,” Warner said, “that you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own.”