(Image: Jack Dorsey and Sheryl Sandberg testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Credit: Bloomberg)
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey received praise from lawmakers for just showing up to hearings in the Senate on Wednesday, while Google’s refusal to send someone sufficiently senior to please the Senate Intelligence Committee was represented by an empty chair.
It was the third time in the past year that Facebook, Twitter and Google have been called to Congress to answer for foreign meddling on their platforms, particularly during the 2016 presidential election, and other assorted ills. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April, but Wednesday was the first time that Sandberg and Dorsey attended such a hearing.
They mostly discussed what the platforms are doing to secure ads around the 2018 mid-term elections and how they are countering inauthentic accounts, which are created to spread misinformation and deceive users.
Here are 6 things you need to know:
Dorsey said Twitter could rethink some of its core features, even how much it should emphasize “follower counts”. Since its founding in 2006, gaining followers has become one of the most important activities – and signs of prestige – on the platform.
Dorsey told senators that Twitter was at fault for encouraging what it now considers unproductive behavior, such as obsessing over those counts.
“We made the number of followers big and bold, and a very simple but noticeable font, and just that decision alone has incentivized people to want to grow that number,” Dorsey said. “The question we are now asking is that necessary… is the number of followers you have really a proxy for how much you contribute to Twitter and to this digital public square, and we don’t believe it is.”
Sandberg faced tough questioning about how the company audits its privacy and data practices, a process that takes place every two years and results in a report that’s shared with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said the most recent audit covered Facebook’s partnerships with electronics manufacturers, including ones based in China, such as Huawei. “I found that portion of this audit very troubling,” he said.
The senator asked Facebook to commit to making public the full audit, but Sandberg declined. “I can’t commit right in this moment to making that public, because a lot of that has sensitive information which could help people game the systems,” Sandberg said.
The audits are conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper and were part of the consent decree Facebook signed with the FTC in 2011 to monitor privacy practices.
Wyden also homed in on two issues circling Facebook these days – potential discrimination by advertisers and foreign election meddling. In 2016, Russians, interfering in the presidential election, targeted US minorities with ads meant to discourage them from voting.
“This is one of the most powerful tools in the propaganda arsenal,” Wyden said.
Facebook and Twitter have both made it more difficult for fake accounts and foreigners to buy political and issue ads in the US, and they both developed archives where people can search all the political ads that run.
Facebook has made it more difficult to target ads based on race and other sensitive characteristics. In August, Facebook removed 5,000 ad targeting keywords that could have been misused by advertisers to discriminate.
In 2016, Pro Publica, the non-profit investigative reporting group, found that housing and employment advertisers could avoid showing their messages to certain groups, which would be illegal. Since then, Facebook has been working with civil rights groups and advocates on policies to prevent abuse.
“Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook,” Sandberg said on Wednesday.
Senator Kamala Harris expressed concerned about how much money Facebook has made from all the inauthentic accounts that proliferate on the service. Last year, Facebook revealed that hundreds of accounts were operated by Russians looking to spread disinformation in American politics between 2015 and 2017.
“How much money did you make from legitimate advertising that ran alongside the Russian propaganda?” Harris said.
Harris was referring not to the money Facebook made from the fraudulent accounts buying ads to promote their posts, but the ad revenue Facebook indirectly generated by serving ads near those posts.
It’s a question Sandberg could not really answer, and attempted to sidestep. Facebook doesn’t technically run ads inside the content that the Russian accounts created. But every extra second spent on Facebook consuming content from inauthentic accounts creates the potential for more ad revenue to Facebook.
Sandberg did say content from the Russian accounts reached 150 million people and represented .004 percent of content on the platform.
“Any amount is too much,” Sandberg said.
Alex Jones, the far-right flamethrower who spews concocted conspiracies online, sat in the gallery at the hearing. Last month, Jones, of course, was punished on Twitter and Facebook, which removed his official pages, and struck from YouTube as well. He has since started building a new following from scratch.
Jones, who is notorious for claiming that mass shootings have been hoaxes and that victims’ relatives were “crisis actors,” is at the heart of the debate about what is misinformation and what is free speech online. Congress has held hearings on how the platforms treat such “conservative” voices.
Jones confronted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, after the hearings, claiming that Democrats were trying to take away his free speech. Jones heckled Rubio while the senator was fielding questions from reporters.
“You are a little gangster thug,” Jones said, which was after Rubio told Jones not to touch him, and that he wouldn’t call security, but would “take care” of Jones by himself.
Rubio then called Jones a “clown”.
One of the most bizarre questions of the day came from Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The senator chastised Google for not showing up and seemed to question the company’s patriotism. Google recently changed its policies over how it works with the US government and the military, cancelling an artificial intelligence project after employees protested.
Cotton was looking to gauge Dorsey and Sandberg’s patriotic fervor.
“Is Twitter an American company?” Cotton asked.
“We are an American company,” Dorsey said.
“Do you prefer to see America remain the world’s dominant global super power?” Cotton said.
Dorsey deftly avoided a direct response, promising to cooperate everywhere in accordance with the company’s terms of service.