Facebook is sorry, Twitter doesn’t shadow-ban, and Google won’t even show up.
That’s what members of the Senate Intelligence Committee will hear and see Wednesday morning when Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg face them for the latest in a string of high-profile hearings about how technology companies are being weaponized to undermine U.S. democracy.
Meanwhile, Google will be represented by an empty chair, after the company’s offer to send a low-level executive was rejected by the committee.
In prepared remarks to the committee, Facebook and Twitter admitted a level of culpability in how they responded to the Russian interference campaign, with all three companies promising to do more to combat nation-state influence.
The statements are very much what we have come to expect from the Silicon Valley giants who have been hauled before Congress on numerous occasions over the last 12 months to explain growing problems on their platforms.
Ahead of the hearings on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the three companies released their opening statements outlining what they have done — and plan to do — to counter foreign-influence campaigns.
This is Dorsey’s first official appearance on Capitol Hill, and it’s set to be a trying one. After enduring the intelligence committee in the morning, Dorsey is due to face the House Energy and Commerce Committee on his own later in the day.
In his 11-page testimony, the Twitter CEO wants to make one thing very clear: the company does not shadow-ban conservatives:
“Let me be clear about one important and foundational fact: Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules. We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our rules impartially. We do not shadowban anyone based on political ideology. In fact, from a simple business perspective and to serve the public conversation, Twitter is incentivized to keep all voices on the platform.”
But Twitter didn’t want to just claim it wasn’t shadow-banning, it wanted to prove it too:
“In preparation for this hearing and to better inform the members of the Committee, our data scientists analyzed tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate who have Twitter accounts for a 30-day period spanning July 23, 2018, to Aug. 13, 2018. We learned that, during that period, Democratic members sent 10,272 Tweets and Republican members sent 7,981. Democrats on average have more followers per account and have more active followers. As a result, Democratic members in the aggregate receive more impressions or views than Republicans. Despite this greater number of impressions, after controlling for various factors such as the number of Tweets and the number of followers, and normalizing the followers’ activity, we observed that there is no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican.”
Dorsey concludes on a hopeful note, one that the critics of Twitter’s inability to stem the tide of hate speech and harassment may take with a pinch of salt.
“The purpose of Twitter is to serve the public conversation, and we do not make value judgments on personal beliefs. We are focused on making our platform—and the technology it relies upon—better and smarter over time and sharing our work and progress with this Committee and the American people. We think increased transparency is critical to promoting healthy public conversation on Twitter and earning trust.”
In her 10-page statement, Sandberg does what she and her boss Mark Zuckerberg have been doing on a constant rotation for the last 12 months. She apologies, relates what happened, and promises it will do better in the future.
Sandberg will warn that Facebook and other tech companies are in an “arms race,” but she will tell lawmakers that the company is pouring a huge amount of money and resources into fighting that battle:
“We’ve made important changes and investments to improve our ability to detect and stop foreign election interference and strengthen the security of our platform. We have more than doubled the number of people working on safety and security and now have over 20,000. We review reports in over 50 languages, 24 hours a day. Better machine learning technology and artificial intelligence have also enabled us to be much more proactive in identifying abuse.”
She will outline actions like removing fake accounts, partnering with fact-checking organizations around the world and disrupting coordinated campaigns in countries like Brazil.
But in the end, Sandberg’s statement is nothing we haven’t heard before from Facebook, and with reports about the platforms malign influence in Libya and the Philippines breaking in the last 24 hours, along with a report that conservative voices like Alex Jones are finding a new home in private Facebook groups, the COO could be in for torrid morning on Capitol Hill.
Google isn’t sending Larry Page, CEO of its parent company Alphabet, to Washington on Wednesday, maybe because they don’t want to him to face probing questions about the rumored plans to launch a censored version of the Google search app for the Chinese market.
It did, however, supply lawmakers with a prepared statement, and thankfully Kent Walker, the company’s senior vp of global affairs, keeps things slightly briefer than Dorsey and Sandberg.
Walker, whom Google proposed as a stand-in for Page but was rejected by lawmakers, outlines the steps Google has taken to ensure the sanctity of the democratic process, including an ad verification system. Unfortunately for Walker, his testimony was published at the same time as a BuzzFeed report that showed researchers posing as Russian trolls were able to bypass that very system with a spend of just $35.
At least Walker admits Google’s system isn’t flawless. “We have deployed our most advanced technologies to increase security and fight manipulation, but we realize that no system is going to be 100% perfect,” Walker said.