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Republicans Have Questions for Twitter, and They’re Not About Election Meddling

When tech execs head to the Hill on Wednesday, Walden wants to talk about censorship

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, arrive to testify before a Senate hearing on Wednesday on the influence of foreign operations on social media. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO, arrive to testify before a Senate hearing on Wednesday on the influence of foreign operations on social media. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The world’s largest social media companies are due Wednesday on Capitol Hill as lawmakers grapple with how to protect American voters from foreign influence operations and deal with charges that conservative views are being censored online.

First some top brass — Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — will face questions from the Senate Intelligence panel, which is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. While the panel had also invited Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page, the search engine giant decided to send its chief legal officer instead. 

The day won’t end there for Dorsey, who will appear separately before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That panel, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, will examine transparency and accountability on Twitter, as President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers have raised alarms about censorship of conservative views.

The hearings come weeks before the 2018 midterms and amid a drumbeat of news about Russia and other countries continuing to run influence operations on social media platforms. When executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared before congressional panels last year, they told lawmakers how their platforms were manipulated by Russian entities with dubious messages that reached more than 100 million Americans.

Facebook’s Sandberg is expected to tell lawmakers that the company initially underestimated the threat from foreign operatives but is now adding as many as 20,000 employees, including security experts and content reviewers who’ll work alongside artificial intelligence-enabled technologies to weed out fake accounts and false news, and increase transparency of political and issue advertising.

In April, Facebook rolled out features that will require all advertisers to verify their identity and location.

In late July, Facebook said it identified 32 pages and fake accounts on its platform that were trying to disrupt the midterm elections by spreading misinformation on divisive issues such as immigration and race relations.

While the company did not directly identify the operators of the fake accounts as Russian entities, Facebook said the activity was similar to the campaign mounted by the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based outfit that has been tied to Russian intelligence agencies.

Facebook’s Sandberg is also likely to tell lawmakers that Russian operatives and others are probing for new ways to manipulate American voters. It would take a lot more coordination and information sharing among U.S. companies, government agencies and security researchers to continue pushing back on such efforts, Sandberg will say.

‘No system is perfect’

Dorsey tweeted that he would share with the Senate Intelligence panel the company’s efforts to “protect election integrity” and also tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Twitter is “committed to impartiality, transparency, and accountability.”

In July, Twitter said it began removing tens of millions of fake accounts from its platform. Before the company took those measures, third-party firms sold fake followers and engagement to users on Twitter.

Google’s Walker said the company has a “responsibility to prevent the misuse of our platforms, and we take that very seriously.”

In a Sept. 4 post on the company’s blog, Walker said Google began its efforts long before the 2016 election and works “to detect and minimize opportunities for manipulation and abuse, constantly tackling new threats and bad actors that arise.”

“While the nature of our services and the way we run our advertising operations appears to have limited the amount of state-sponsored interference on our platforms, no system is perfect — and we are committed to taking continuing action to address the issue,” Walker wrote.

Google is offering cybersecurity protections for political candidates, along with a verification program for political ads and a searchable library of such messages, he said.

Warner’s worries

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has indicated that he has questions for technology executives that go beyond election security to the various ways technology platforms can cause harm to Americans.

“Government has failed to adapt and has been incapable or unwilling to adequately address the impacts of these trends on privacy, competition and public discourse,” Warner said in a draft white paper he released in early August examining possible policy proposals.

In the draft, Warner outlined how Congress could require social media companies to police user generated content, mandate that technology companies distinguish between material generated by automated bots and those posted by humans, and pass laws governing Americans’ data privacy.

Warner also highlighted in his white paper the potential downsides of many of those proposals. For example, requiring social media companies to take responsibility for user-generated content would remove protections those companies enjoy from criminal and tort liability.

At an Aug. 1 hearing when experts testified about foreign influence operations, Burr told the witnesses that the hearings were not about “relitigating the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.” Instead the hearings were about “national security” and “corporate responsibility,” Burr said. “And this is about the deliberate and multifaceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a foreign hostile government.”

Conservative concerns

While the Senate Intelligence panel is focused on the manipulation of social media platforms and how to regulate emerging technology, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely to focus mostly on whether Twitter is a neutral arbiter of political discourse.

“Tomorrow, we will address serious concerns about how Twitter moderates its platform,” Walden wrote in a tweet. “Oregonians and millions of Americans deserve answers as to how their content is policed on social media.”

Walden, along with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, are among leading Republicans who have raised questions about the impartiality of social media companies.

“Social media censorship threatens our ability to have important conversations,” McCarthy tweeted last month. “When only one side is doing the talking, you don’t call it a dialogue. You call it a lecture.”

GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who is seeking a Senate seat, tweeted that “social media is discriminating against conservative voices.”

President Trump has tweeted that when he did a Google search for news on his administration, he found only negative items, and declared that the search engine company had “rigged” its results to suppress positive news. “Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out,” Trump tweeted after calling CNN fake.

Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow has said the administration is “taking a look” at Google search results and will “do some investigations, some analysis.”

Google has said its search results are not “used to set a political agenda.”

But online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Apple have booted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars site.

After facing mounting criticism for not kicking Jones off Twitter, the platform suspended him for one week, citing violations of policies on hate speech. The suspension came after Jones posted a video on Twitter calling on his supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against the media.

In November 2016, Twitter removed white nationalist Richard Spencer as part of a purge of alt-right figures, but he was allowed to return after a month.

Republican concerns about conservative voices being suppressed online are overblown, said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents all major technology companies.

“As a conservative and somebody who has spent decades working in Republican politics and campaigns this is something that I am very focused on,” Beckerman said in a statement. “It’s clear to me and to most people that there is not political bias in search and there is not political bias on social media.”

On the contrary, thanks to social media platforms, “conservative voices are now more prominent than ever,” Beckerman said.

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