Facebook and Twitter will dispatch top executives to Capitol Hill this week to try to assuage lawmakers who fear that Russian propaganda and political censorship continue to plague the world’s most popular social media sites.
The back-to-back House and Senate hearings scheduled for Wednesday illustrate the new political reality for Silicon Valley, as Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly seem willing to regulate the industry for the way it moderates content online — and eager to subject its once-untouchable executives to intense public scrutiny.
The political gantlet begins in the Senate, where the Intelligence Committee will host Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter. They’ll testify — their first time ever on Capitol Hill — at a hearing on foreign governments that spread misinformation over social media.
The goal is “to sound the alarm that what happened in 2016, as we’ve seen, was not a one-off,” said Sen. Mark Warner, Va., the top Democrat on the committee, referring to the presidential election. “While the companies have gotten better and the government’s gotten better, the adversaries have gotten better, too.”
Later Wednesday, Dorsey alone will head to the House, where the tech-focused Energy and Commerce Committee plans to delve into Twitter’s powerful algorithm — and the way the company polices hate speech, harassment and other ills on its platform. The broad focus is in name only, as Republicans called the hearing in response to allegations that Twitter is silencing conservatives.
“It’s a real ‘Wizard of Oz,’ behind-the-curtain operation,” said Rep. Greg Walden, Ore., the Republican chairman of the committee. “I think the public has a right to know.”
In response to lawmakers, Sandberg plans to reiterate Facebook’s work to hire more employees to review content and improve its technology to spot increasingly sophisticated inauthentic behavior online, a spokesman for the company said. Dorsey, meanwhile, said ahead of the hearing: “We realize Twitter is used by many as a public square, and our singular objective as a company is to help increase the health and integrity of conversations found within.”
Missing from both hearings is Google. Senate lawmakers formally invited Larry Page, the chief executive of Google’s parent company, to their Sept. 5 hearing. Google responded with an offer for Kent Walker, the company’s senior vice president of global affairs and chief legal officer, to testify, which Senate leaders rejected. In a statement, Google said Walker would still come to Washington D.C., share written testimony and meet with interested lawmakers this week.
But Democrats and Republicans still blasted Google for failing to send its top executives. “I don’t know if it’s because [Page] wants to avoid being asked about those things or because they think they’re so important and so powerful that they don’t need to provide congressional testimony,” said GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., another member of the intelligence committee. “They should be careful with that. When a company gets too big to become accountable, they become a monopoly.”
House lawmakers, meanwhile, say they’ve long offered the search giant an open invitation to send a top executive to testify, but Google hasn’t agreed to that, either. Walden said he didn’t want an “adversarial” relationship with Google. “If it takes a subpoena,” he later said, “I guess we’ll have to go there, but that’s the last thing we want to do.”
For Facebook, Google and Twitter, the immediate challenge is the 2018 election. Appearing on Capitol Hill last fall, the trio of tech giants told Senate investigators that Russian agents reached millions of Americans around the 2016 presidential election with ads, posts and other content on issues related to immigration, gun control and gay rights. On Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter will return to the same committee, weeks after revealing Russian agents continue spreading disinformation -- and new players, like Iran, are now doing the same -- sparking fears that social media companies must wage a widening global war on misinformation.
Among lawmakers, Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said he’s focused on new, emerging challenges like so-called “deepfakes,” a technique that essentially can create fake videos using real subjects and extremely life-like voices. Combined with artificial intelligence, it can make it seem like prominent figures, from celebrities to presidents, are saying things that they actually aren’t, which can quickly go viral online.
“We’re at the beginning of that being a problem,” Warner said. “Our adversaries [see] this is both effective and cheap and they’re going to keep at it.”
Despite the focus on foreign interference, lawmakers on the 15-member Senate Intelligence Committee aren’t limited in what they can ask. That creates an opening for Democrats to pepper Sandberg with uncomfortable questions about online privacy, responding to a series of data mishaps at Facebook that allowed app makers, political consultants and others to access millions of users’ data. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, said they would press Facebook and Twitter on allegations of anti-conservative bias, charges that President Donald Trump himself has raised recently.
“The Russians are watching that and could look to exploit that even further,” Rubio said. “These social media and Internet sites have created for themselves an additional vulnerability.”
The House will devote an entire hearing to those allegations Wednesday afternoon with Dorsey. Many Republicans contend that Twitter silently limits the reach of conservatives’ tweets, a practice known as “shadow banning” that the company denies. One GOP member who sits on the committee has a personal beef with Twitter: GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tenn., briefly had an abortion-related campaign ad briefly blocked by the company last year.
But similar congressional hearings have drawn sharp derision from congressional Democrats, who see charges of censorship as totally invented -- and motivated entirely by politics. Trump, for example, has sought to use the allegations of bias as a fundraising tool in recent weeks.
“The future of the Internet should not be driven by whether the president’s feelings are hurt or a desire to sow divisions in our nation. That’s what authoritarian regimes do, not democracies,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Walden, the committee’s chairman, denied the hearing is motivated by the upcoming election. He said there are “conservatives out there who believe their content somehow has been restricted.” By contrast, he said he hadn’t heard anything at recent hearings from “anybody on the Democratic side...on how liberal content had been taken down.”