Facebook, Twitter face Senate scrutiny over our data and foreign election interference

Facebook and Twitter say they’re trying their best to stop bad behavior on their sites. But Congress says it’s not good enough anymore.

Two years after Russian influence campaigns swarmed the internet, using the world’s largest social media companies as platforms to spread disinformation and interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the US, lawmakers say they’re prepared to take action.

In a Washington DC hearing held by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, senators pushed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about why their businesses run the way they do. But they also asked what the companies are doing to reduce the effect of internet trolls, false stories and provocateurs who incite violence.

“I’m skeptical that, ultimately, you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said during the hearing. “The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end.”

The hearing comes five months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before three committees over two days about Cambridge Analytica, Russian election interference and censorship. (Larry Page, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, was invited but declined to show.)

Facebook’s Sandberg and Twitter’s Dorsey are sworn in before the beginning of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday. 


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But the seriousness of Wednesday’s hearing was clear from the start. Both Sandberg and Dorsey were put under oath, something Zuckerberg didn’t have to do in April, and both were immediately peppered with questions around transparency, advertising and how the companies are trying to stop bad behavior.

The drama wasn’t just in the hearing room. The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, known for harassing survivors and parents of children who died in school shootings by claiming those events were fakes and hoaxes, was also present at the hearings. Jones had traveled from his offices in Texas to the hearing room in Washington, he said in livestream rant from outside the hearing room, to “face his accusers” after he’d been kicked off Facebook, Apple, Google’s YouTube and other services last month. 

“They demonize me at these hearings and tell lies about me and I never get to face my accusers,” he told Techhnews in an interview outside the hearing room, calling the hearing members “absolute cowards.” He also got in a heated exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio outside the hearing room during a break. “I’m going to start showing up at these things.”

Continued election interference

The title for the Senate hearing is “Foreign influence operations and their use of social media platforms,” which makes sense considering the committee is still investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. That — and the fact that tech companies have already identified and shut down hundreds of accounts attempting to interfere with this year’s US midterm elections, set for Nov. 6 — means there’s likely a lot to talk about.

“We have learned about how vulnerable social media is to corruption and misuse,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr. “The very worst examples of this are absolutely chilling, and a threat to our democracy.”

But the questions weren’t focused just on those topics. Lawmakers asked about everything from data collection practices to transparency reports.

Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, asked about Facebook’s policies on hate speech, and why it seems to allow users to disparage black children but not white men. Sen. Angus King, meanwhile, asked about the threat of deepfakes, or videos and audio that have been altered by a computer program to convincingly change what they’re saying and doing.


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Censorship question

As tech companies step up their efforts to fight election interference and false news, lawmakers and pundits have raised concerns that the companies have begun censoring conservative voices. 

It’s an issue that members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee in particular are likely to bring up in its planned hearing with Dorsey shortly after the Senate hearing concludes Wednesday.

Rep. Greg Walden, the House committee’s chairman, said that questions about censorship are important to raise as these companies amass aggregate user bases larger than most countries, giving them extraordinary power over the flow of information.

“A lot of people are wondering, who’s behind the curtain? And how is this being decided as to whose voice is heard first and whose voice is heard most,” Walden, a Republican from Oregon, said in an interview Tuesday. “They don’t have this right yet.”

First published Aug. 30 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated Sept. 5 at 5:00 a.m. PT: Added details about viewing Wednesday’s hearing; 6:42 a.m. PT: Added details from opening remarks; 7:30 a.m. PT: added details about initial questions, updates throughout; 7:41 a.m. PT: Added details about conspiracy theorist Alex Jones attending the briefing; 8:57 a.m. PT: Adds further details about questions posed to companies.

The Honeymoon is Over: Everything you need to know about why tech is under Washington’s microscope.

Infowars and Silicon Valley: Everything you need to know about the tech industry’s free speech debate.

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