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Here's what's at stake for Google, Facebook, and Twitter at this week's congressional hearing

by David Gilbert
Sep 4 2018, 10:30am

Silicon Valley’s in the hot seat on Capitol Hill again this week as executives from Facebook and Twitter gear up to face questions about election interference, censoring conservative voices, regulation of Big Tech, and Donald Trump’s tweets.

With the midterms looming and a beleaguered president threatening to regulate Silicon Valley if it doesn’t promote more right-wing voices, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — and possibly someone from Google — will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

The title of the hearing is “Foreign influence operations and their use of social media platforms,” but lawmakers are likely to use it as a chance to push partisan talking points.

The hearing comes just days after President Trump took a broad swipe at Silicon Valley over the alleged censoring of conservative voices that places the companies in the middle of a fight between Republicans who believe they are being silenced and Democrats who want extremist voices like Alex Jones shut down.

The committee has also invited Larry Page, chief executive of Google’s parent company Alphabet, but it’s unclear if he will attend. Lawmakers rejected the company’s offer to send Kent Walker, its senior vice president of global affairs — meaning the search giant could be represented by an empty chair.

There have already been numerous hearings on the Hill about election interference and the role played by social media platforms in those campaigns, with most experts agreeing that little if anything has been learned.

This time around will be different, according to Sen. Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I think a lot of folks have done their homework,” Warner told Wired, referring to past hearings where some committee members seemed uninformed about some internet basics. “I don’t think this one has to be about Internet 101. There were some of my colleagues who I don’t even think knew how social media works.”

“What I’ve told the companies is that I don’t want this to be a retrospective on what happened in 2016, but I want to know what they’re doing to prevent this happening in 2018 and beyond.”

Here’s what’s at stake for each company:

Facebook

Facebook has had a turbulent 12 months where it faced negative media coverage over bad actors on the platform and a sinking stock price. So more than the other Silicon Valley giants, it needs this week’s testimony to go smoothly.

This time around, Facebook is ready to say sorry.

According to Axios, Sandberg will tell lawmakers that Facebook admits it was too slow to respond in 2016 when bots and bad actors spread false and divisive information. She will also outline what the company has done to counter the ongoing threat, including doubling staff working on security and safety to 20,000, and working more closely with law enforcement, other tech companies, and outside experts.

But she will also warn: “The people behind the threats we’ve identified in the past will keep getting better, trying out new playbooks, tactics, and techniques."

But two years on from the 2016 election, there is still no broad consensus about the scale of Russia’s interference or even if it happened at all.

On Tuesday, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former head of security who has just left the company, outlined the problem.

“Two years after Pearl Harbor, the United States had quadrupled the size of our Navy. Two years on from the election, and people are still arguing whether we were even attacked, and I find that amazing,” Stamos told CNN Tuesday.

Twitter

Like Facebook, Twitter has done a lot to try to make things more difficult for foreign actors to influence elections, including a massive purge of millions of accounts to get rid of bots and dormant account from its platform.

But tactics have also advanced, with campaigns not using so-called cyborgs — accounts posting a mix of human-curated and automated content — which make it much harder for Twitter to spot.

Besides facing the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dorsey will also testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on how Twitter monitors the content people post on the platform.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen Dorsey conduct a media campaign in a bid to more clearly explain how the company views and deals with divisive content — without much success.

Dorsey will address the two big elephants in the room: shadow-banning and Alex Jones.

Regarding the former, Dorsey is expected to tell lawmakers that Twitter ran its own internal testing this summer that analyzed House and Senate accounts for a sample 30-day period.

“After controlling for external factors that Twitter does not control, such as the number of tweets and the number of followers, there is no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a tweet by a Republican,” the company told Axios.

In relation to the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whom Twitter did not ban despite pressure to do so after Facebook and YouTube imposed bans, Dorsey will tell the committee that Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions on bans.

Google

Google has so far escaped the kind of criticism hurled at Facebook in relation to election interference, but there’s mounting concern about several areas of the company’s business that it might not have wanted to address in public. Notably, its plans to launch a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market, a secret project that has been strongly criticized by activists and human rights groups.

“I was going to ask them why Google is building a search engine for China to allow Chinese censorship,” Warner said. “Maybe they don’t want to answer some of those questions. But if Google thinks we’re just going to go away, they’re sadly mistaken.”

Last week Trump made several completely baseless accusations about Google’s censorship of conservative voices. Trump’s claims (some of which he subsequently deleted) line up with a broader view that Silicon Valley in general is trying to silence right-wing voices, and it is likely that Republican lawmakers will push Google on this at the hearing.

By not sending an adequate representative, Google won’t avoid having to address these issues; they’re simply delaying it.

Cover : Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, delivers a speech during the visit of a start-up companies gathering at Paris' Station F, in Paris, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)