A Platform for Political Theater

 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of September 3-7, 2018

Robbie McBeath

On September 5, 2018, lawmakers on Capitol Hill hosted two hearings with the heads of Facebook and Twitter. In the morning, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the hearing on Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms. Later that day, just Dorsey appeared before the House Commerce Committee at the hearing, Twitter: Transparency and Accountability

The hearings provided the opportunity for lawmakers to air their grievances about online platforms, and to get some answers as to whether Facebook and Twitter are doing enough to ensure the platforms provide a safe and trusted information environment ahead of the 2018 elections. 

Reviewing the lines of questioning,  it appeared that Republicans and Democrats  are not seeing the same reality, as if operating in alternative universes, complete with “alternative facts.” There was also some bizarre political theater: a disruption from a screaming, far-right activist who was drowned out by Rep Billy Long (R-MO) performing auctioneering talk; a conspicuously-empty chair set aside to highlight Google's absence at the Senate hearing; and a cameo from InfoWars host Alex Jones. 

But behind it all lurked the threat of regulation. During the morning, news broke that the Department of Justice is convening a meeting with state attorneys general...

The Spectre of Antitrust: Enter the DOJ

Perhaps the biggest story from the day of hearings actually happened outside of the Capitol. Just as Sandberg and Dorsey were wrapping up the morning hearing, news broke that Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to gather state attorneys general to discuss whether social-media giants may be harming competition and “intentionally stifling” certain viewpoints, stepping up pressure on the platforms over alleged anti-conservative bias.

The DOJ announcement came one day after President Donald Trump accused social-media companies of interfering in elections in favor of the Democrats. “The truth is they were all on Hillary Clinton’s side,” he said.

Some saw the DOJ’s timing as suspicious. DOJ spokesman Devin O’Malley said the agency listened “closely” to the morning’s testimony. He said AG Sessions plans “to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.” He also alleged that the stifling of viewpoints has been a longstanding concern of AG Sessions and the meeting had been in the works before the Sept 5 hearing. 

Either way, it added to the narrative that worked in the background of both hearings: tech companies should prepare for regulation. 

Google: The “Invisible Witness”

At the Senate hearing, Facebook and Twitter executives were seated next to an empty chair, reserved for Larry Page, Google co-founder and CEO of parent company Alphabet. Senators formally invited Page, as well as Google CEO Sundar Pichai, but Google declined. Instead,  the company offered testimony from Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president of global affairs and chief legal officer. The night before the hearing, Google submitted written testimony from Walker. 

Google’s absence from the morning hearing drew sharp rebukes from senators, who accused Google of trying to dodge congressional scrutiny.

“This is a hearing that’s going to talk about solutions. I think it speaks volumes that Google doesn’t want to be part of that discussion. I don't think it’s good for them or for coming up with a good solution,” said Committee Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-VA).

The criticism was bipartisan. “There’s an empty chair next to you from Google, they’re not here,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). “Maybe it’s because they’re arrogant.” He continued later, “I don't know if it's because [Page] wants to avoid being asked about [criticisms of Google] or because they think they're so important and so powerful that they don't need to provide congressional testimony. They should be careful with that. When a company gets too big to become accountable, they become a monopoly.”

Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote about Google’s absence for Brookings, saying:

As someone who represented emerging industries in Washington for decades and went on to become a regulator, Google’s decision not to be part of the discussion is a strategic mistake of virtually incalculable proportions for both themselves as well as the Silicon Valley companies they have come to represent. When the Congress of the United States decides to inquire into your activities, the choice is simple: you can either be at the table and meaningfully engaged, or you can be on the table as your business practices are dissected by others.

Foreign Election Interference

Atop the Senate committee’s hearing agenda was the efforts of the online platforms to stamp out foreign election interference. Both Republicans and Democrats wanted the companies to explain how they are protecting the 2018 midterms from abuse amid repeated warnings from top U.S. intelligence officials that the election process remains under attack by Russia and other countries.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (left);
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (right) 

The goal is “to sound the alarm that what happened in 2016, as we've seen, was not a one-off,” said Ranking Member Warner. “While the companies have gotten better and the government's gotten better, the adversaries have gotten better, too." He continued, “Each of you have come a long way with respect to recognizing the threat. The bad news, I’m afraid, is that there is a lot of work still to do. And I’m skeptical that, ultimately, you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own. Congress is going to have to take action here.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) hinted at congressional action. He laid out some potential legislative solutions in his opening remarks, including regulation of social media platforms and legislation that facilitates information sharing on cyberthreats between companies and the government.

Both Sandberg and Dorsey emphasized that mistakes were made in 2016, but that both companies were adamant that they were tackling the problem. 

“Let me be clear: We are more determined than our opponents and we will keep fighting,” Sandberg said in her remarks, during which she outlined the various changes Facebook has made to its platform to make political ads more transparent and suppress demonstrably false news.

“I look forward to sharing our work with the members of this Committee and listening to your recommendations on how best to increase the health of our platform and its role in our democracy from manipulation by hostile foreign actors,” said Dorsey. “From Twitter’s perspective, this threat is not limited solely to elections or politics. Instead, we view it as a challenge to the fundamental health of our platform, and by extension, to the global public conversation that Twitter serves. We commit to continuing to confront that challenge together.” 

Misinformation, Bots, and ‘Deepfakes’

The issue of “foreign influence” on the platforms has many components, including how they handle the spread of misinformation, the proliferation of fake accounts and bots, and new artificial intelligence (AI) technology called “Deepfakes” — ultra-realistic audio and video intended for manipulation or the erosion of trust. Sandberg and Dorsey received a variety of questions from lawmakers into these types of content. 

The executives agreed with the lawmakers that these types of content are a problem, and spoke to their their attempts and plans on how to address it. Sandberg said in her opening testimony:

We’re investing heavily in people and technology to keep our community safe and keep our service secure. This includes using artificial intelligence to help find bad content and locate bad actors. We’re shutting down fake accounts and reducing the spread of false news. We’ve put in place new ad transparency policies, ad content restrictions, and documentation requirements for political ad buyers. We’re getting better at anticipating risks and taking a broader view of our responsibilities. And we’re working closely with law enforcement and our industry peers to share information and make progress together.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) raised a concern with Facebook’s large-scale data collection: the possibility that political groups could suppress voting by targeting misinformation at very specific groups of people, potentially by providing false information about voting. Democrats on Twitter, for instance, have been targeted with ads claiming they could cast a vote by text message.

“There is a long history in this country of trying to suppress civil rights and voting rights, and that activity has no place on Facebook. Discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook,” said Sandberg. Pressed for details about what Facebook was doing about the problem, she cited a mix of automated systems and human moderators reviewing ads — Facebook’s standard answer for dealing with bad content.

Sen. Wyden also questioned the witnesses over the possibility of user data leaks posing a national security threat. He said:

Technology companies like yours hold a vast amount of very private information about millions of Americans. The prospect of that data being shared with shady businesses, hackers and foreign governments is a massive privacy and national security concern. Russians keep looking for more sophisticated ways of attacking our democracy, personal data reveals not just your personal and political leanings but what you buy, even who you date.... My view is, from this point on, beefing up protections and controls on personal privacy must be a national security priority.

Sen. Wyden then asked Sandberg and Dorsey if they agreed, to which both replied that they did.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) brought up the possibility of further altering Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The provision protects websites from lawsuits over content posted by users, but Sen. Manchin suggested a carveout may be necessary to combat the sale of opioids on social media, similar to a recently-passed measure that targets online sex trafficking.

Regarding fake accounts, Google, Facebook, and Twitter in August announced they had scrubbed their networks of fake accounts tied to Iran’s state broadcasting arm, disclosures that widened concerns about how foreign governments — not just the Kremlin — are using social media to advance their geopolitical aims.

But some senators wanted more confirmation that Twitter is standing up for American values. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) took a nationalist approach when questioning whether Dorsey saw a difference between cooperating with the U.S. government and cooperating with the Russian or Chinese governments on surveillance of citizens. Dorsey was confused by the question, and Sen. Cotton asked, “Is Twitter an American company?” to which Dorsey gave affirmation. Sen. Cotton asked, “Do you prefer to see America remain the world’s dominant superpower?” Dorsey said the company needs to be consistent with its terms of service and corporate values, and to go through due legal process to protect the privacy of Twitter users.

As to automated accounts, Dorsey told lawmakers that his company is looking into the possibility of labeling bots, which would represent a major change in the company's policy. 

Committee members tackled “deepfakes” later in the hearing. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked Sandberg whether Facebook could determine whether a video had been manipulated and tag it for readers, warning them that it may have been faked. Sandberg answered that “as always, we’re going to do a combination of investing in technology and investing in people, so that people can see authentic information on our service.”

‘Intentional Suppression’ or ‘Working the Refs’? 

Dorsey received questions about censorship from lawmakers with wide-ranging views in each chamber. Senators objected to platforms bowing to any foreign request of censorship. While in the House, representatives expressed concern that intentional suppression of conservative views had occured within the U.S. 

Dorsey aimed to be clear on Twitter’s lack of discriminatory practices in his testimony before the House. "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," Dorsey said. His testimony included a new study that found Democratic and Republican lawmakers have equal reach on the site.

But not everybody was buying it. When Dorsey answered with a clear "no" to a question by House Commerce Vice Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) about whether Twitter discriminates based on political philosophy, Barton said his denial was "hard to stomach."

"We wouldn't be having this discussion if there wasn't a general agreement that your company has discriminated against conservatives, most of whom happen to be Republican," Rep. Barton said. 

There was tension over the justification for the House hearing itself, with accusations that Republicans were “working the refs” in claiming Twitter’s conservative bias. Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said, “Over the past few weeks, President Trump and many Republicans have peddled conspiracy theories about Twitter and other social media platforms to whip up their base and fundraise. I fear the Republicans are using this hearing for those purposes instead of addressing the serious issues raised by social media platforms that affect American’s everyday lives.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who could become the next Speaker of the House, has recently sought to highlight conservative bias — and fundraise off it — through ads that appeared in August on Facebook, one of the sites he has criticized. And President Trump has sought to use the allegations of bias as a fundraising tool in recent weeks as well.

“Unfortunately, the Republican majority has decided to pursue the trumped-up notion that there is a special conservative bias in the way Twitter operates,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) said.  “What worries me is that this is a campaign by the GOP to work the refs, complaining about a non-existent bias and force an overcorrection which then can result in some actual bias going in the other direction.”

Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) denied that the hearing was 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."

“We are 60 days away from the midterm elections,” Rep. Sarbanes said. “We know there are efforts to disrupt our democracy. We know these same actors — these foreign and hostile actors — this very platform, Twitter, to sow discord … instead, here we are using our precious resources to feed deep-state conspiracy theories proffered by our president and his allies in Congress.” He provided a list of eight things Congress should be investigating instead, including President Trump’s tax returns and the White House’s election-security efforts. 

[Weekly readers should remember that this is not the first time the committee has questioned an online platform about perceived conservative bias. See: What We Learned From Mark Zuckerberg This Week]

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) used his time to get clear answers from Dorsey that refuted the GOP statements, effectively having Dorsey deny the accusations about Twitter’s conservative bias. Rep Mike Doyle (D-PA) called the idea that social-media services exhibit a partisan slant a “load of crap.”

For all the talk around censorship, no legislative solutions were proposed. “It’s totally politics,” said Benton Senior Counselor Andrew Schwartzman. He said Republican lawmakers accused social-media companies of bias but he doubted that Congress would want to create laws to monitor speech on the services. “I don’t hear any discussion that suggests there are genuine legislative solutions to problems they are talking about.”

So, What’s Next? More Hearings.

At the end of the day, both hearings allowed lawmakers to get some questions answered about what the major platforms are doing to reduce foreign influence in elections and what they are doing to make their platforms a safe and trusted space ahead of the 2018 midterms. 

In the House, not much bipartisan agreement surfaced. Both parties seemed to indicate more inquiry is required.  "I think it's critical that we get to better transparency and better accountability," Chairman Walden told reporters following the hearing. "And we'll have more questions we want Dorsey and Twitter to answer." 

In the Senate, there was one thing both lawmakers and executives seemed to agree on: that private-public cooperation was necessary to address disinformation from foreign adversaries.  

“I think the observation that no one company can fight this on their own is spot on,” Chairman Burr said. “We need to be candid about responsibility — and by that I mean both the responsibility we have to one another, from one side of this dais to the other, as participants in this public policy discussion.”

Echoing her boss’ April testimony, Sandberg said, “We don’t think it’s a question of whether regulation. We think it’s a question of the right regulation.” 

But even with the calls for cooperation, the threat of antitrust regulation was never far away. “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Ranking Member Warner said. “Where we go from here is an open question. The size and reach of your platforms demand that we, as policymakers, do our job, to ensure proper oversight, transparency and protections for American users and for our democratic institutions."

Get ready for more. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Sept 10-14, 2018 Events

Sept 13 -- Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, FTC hearing

By Robbie McBeath.