On Wednesday morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee will question Twitter (TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook (FB) chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on their responses to foreign disinformation campaigns. The committee also invited Google (GOOG, GOOGL) CEO Sundar Pichai, but he declined to testify — another Google representative will testify in his place.
Both episodes, but especially the second, may yield more heat than light. Also likely: Big Tech’s leaders will once again do a poor job of explaining their work and how they’ve failed to do it well.
The Russians were coming
The Senate hearing looks more promising both because of the seriousness of the legislators involved, and the fact that an actual problem exists that still demands a deeper explanation.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has worked diligently and largely cooperatively—in distinct contrast to the Republican leadership of the House Intelligence Committee—to unpack foreign interference in the 2016 election.
But while we’ve known since late 2016 that Russian operatives ran a coordinated disinformation campaign on Facebook and Twitter, and more recently have learned that countries such as Iran are running the same playbook, numerous questions remained unanswered.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons The New School for Design in New York who was among the first to call out Cambridge Analytica’s massive acquisition of voter data on Facebook, suggested that the committee look into abuse of Facebook’s Custom Audiences feature.
That’s the advertising option that lets you target people by name—something you can’t do with Facebook data alone—by uploading a separate contacts list collected elsewhere. Carroll added that since indictments filed by special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller note Russian attempts to steal voter-analytics data, the potential for abuse of the Custom Audiences feature is even greater.
Berin Szoka, president of the libertarian policy group TechFreedom, advised that senators ask how these companies will improve their cooperation with law enforcement during future elections and what sort of legal standards should exist for disclosing interference campaigns.
But when President Trump keeps suggesting that Russian interference was a media myth, that hoped-for debate may not happen.
An ugly precedent
The House Energy & Commerce hearing looks exponentially less likely to yield useful insights. Earlier grillings of social-media executives in that more-partisan chamber rapidly degenerated into self-serving circuses, dominated by complaints from Republican members that tech firms suppressed the voices of their advocates—followed by their implications that stricter regulation is the answer.
A July 17 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, for example, saw Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) decry a drop in Facebook traffic for the hoax factory that calls itself the Gateway Pundit. Rep. Lamar Smith (R.-Tex.) voiced the evidence-free claim that Google suppressed searches for Jesus, Chick-fil-A and Catholicism. Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R.-Va.), historically a free-market conservative, suggested that social networks might be more properly treated as regulated utilities.
“Yes, I expect the E&C hearing to be a complete replay of the HJC hearing: pure political theater, with Republicans hypocritically ranting about the need for fairness and neutrality in social media,” he wrote in an email.
Carroll voiced a similar concern in an email: “Those of us who have a better sense of how these things work will be banging our heads against the desk, wall or similar flat surface (or simply placing our thumbs and index fingers on the bridge of our noses, eyes clenched closed).”
An untenable position
Pointing and laughing at clueless Congresspeople is, unfortunately, not an option. The problem also exists on the opposite coast, where tech execs try so hard to look innocent and uninterested in politics that they or their policies wind up looking nonsensical.
On the issue of foreign interference, for example, Facebook’s well-intentioned attempt to stop foreign purchases of political ads led to a blanket ban on ads including certain keywords. As a result, innocent posts from newspapers and businesses wound up sinking out of sight.
And when Trump supporters claimed in 2016 that Facebook’s curation of the trending-topics feed penalized right-wing voices, many with a documented record of publishing fiction, the social network responded by replacing those curators with less-helpful algorithms.
More recently, Facebook, Google and Twitter all hesitated to boot InfoWars hoaxer Alex Jones instead of saying upfront that, as owners of private platforms, they were within their rights to eject anybody who suggests that the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Sandy Hook massacre were false-flag operations.
When almost any issue can get lit up with partisan politics, it’s important to remember that the issues we’ll hear about next week mostly fall outside those lines. And that the loudest voice to decry social networks, President Trump, himself ranks among the biggest beneficiaries of these companies.
Just ask one of the architects of his successful 2016 campaign.
“We needed to go out and find people,” Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale told Yahoo News’s Michael Isikioff in an onstage interview at the Web Summit conference last November. “Facebook allowed us to do that in alarming numbers very fast.”
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