A U.S. Senate panel opened a hearing on Russia’s online election meddling with Twitter Inc.’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg and an empty chair where Google’s witness had been invited to sit.
Intelligence Committee members raised the prospect for government regulation throughout the hearing, as senators suggested voluntary efforts by the social media companies continue to fall short.
“If the answer is regulation,” Senator Richard Burr, the committee’s Republican chairman, said, “let’s have an honest dialogue about what that looks like.”
Facebook, Twitter and Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. were all trading lower as the hearing was underway, with Twitter down 5.3 percent at 10:29 a.m. New York time.
The hearing will set the tone for the coming two months as tech companies and the U.S. government awkwardly collaborate to fight foreign influence campaigns ahead of the midterm elections in November, a contest for control of Congress. Social media platforms, which can serve as a vehicle to spread messages covertly, have become a tool of choice for adversaries seeking to broaden divisions in the U.S. and meddle in American politics, as intelligence agencies found Russia did in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Intelligence Committee invited Larry Page, chief executive officer of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc., or Google CEO Sundar Pichai to the hearing Wednesday to appear alongside Twitter’s CEO Dorsey and Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sandberg. But the panel’s leaders rejected Google’s offer to settle instead for Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker, who the Mountain View, California-based company had said would be “an appropriate witness for this hearing.”
Burr said in opening remarks that he was “disappointed Goggle decided against sending the right senior-level executive.”
Google said in a statement that Walker would be in Washington on Wednesday, “where he will deliver written testimony, brief members of Congress on our work, and answer any questions they have.” Instead, the committee left an empty chair with a sign labeled “Google.”
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, said, “Our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered.” He cited vulnerabilities that he said include “absurd conspiracies” that turn up as Google search results, “divisive videos” linked to Russia on YouTube, and “hacking attempts” on Gmail.
Warner raised the specter of fake information on social networks shaking financial markets. “Imagine the damage to the markets if forged communications from the Fed chairman were leaked online,” he said, “Or consider the price of a Fortune 500 company’s stock if a dishonest short-seller was able to spread false information about that company’s CEO – or the effects of its products -- rapidly online?"
Sandberg is an accomplished public speaker, known for her book “Lean In” on women’s empowerment and practiced in the ways of Washington from her time as an aide to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Dorsey, who is more comfortable tweeting than speaking, read his opening statement from his mobile phone, saying that he overcame his shyness because of the importance of the problem.
“When I think of our work, I think of my mom and dad in St. Louis, a Democrat and a Republican,” Dorsey said. “For them Twitter has always been a source of joy, learning and connection to something bigger.”
Dorsey, whose company has been criticized by conservatives who say it’s restricting their provocative messages, said, “We believe people will learn faster by being exposed to a wide range of opinions and ideas. We aren’t proud of how that free and open exchange has been weaponized and used to distract and divide people, and our nation.”
Sandberg said Facebook has “always shared information with other companies but we are doing better and can continue to do better. The faster we can collaborate, the faster we share those tips with each other, the stronger our collective defense will be.”
Asked how Facebook uses information to sell advertising, Sandberg said “privacy and advertising aren’t at odds. In fact they go together” and users can control their privacy settings.
Questioned by Warner about whether Facebook has a “moral and legal obligation” to take down accounts encouraging violence, Sandberg said, “I strongly believe that” and “we need to do more.”
Warner responded that social media companies that fail to do so should face sanctions.
Sandberg and Dorsey highlighted their companies’ detection and removal of accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll farm with links to Russia’s military intelligence unit. This comes after the February indictment of a dozen individuals who had been employed by the St. Petersburg-based agency under Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing investigation.
Facebook removed more than 270 Internet Research Agency accounts in April, according to Sandberg’s prepared testimony . These accounts are in addition to the 470 similar accounts and pages that Facebook removed between June 2015 and August 2017, she said.
Twitter has removed a total 3,843 accounts for possible affiliation with the Internet Research Agency, according to Dorsey’s prepared testimony for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing scheduled for later Wednesday.
This year, U.S. concern about political interference hasn’t been limited to Russia. Covert accounts linked to Iran also have cropped up.
In August, Twitter removed 770 accounts that were based in Iran and that engaged in coordinated messaging. Most of those accounts were created after the presidential election and claimed U.S. affiliation or sought to reach American audiences, according to Dorsey’s testimony.
Despite Google’s absence from the witness table, the company on Tuesday posted what it called prepared “testimony” from Walker on social media companies’ efforts to thwart election meddling in advance of November’s midterm races.
Walker’s prepared testimony lists the four new types of disclosure the company promised concerning election advertising in his last congressional appearance in the fall of 2017. Those include databases listing election ads on Google search, YouTube and across the web, as well as a verification program and disclosures on political ads.
Updates with shares, Sandberg and Dorsey comments starting in fourth paragraph.
Read Sandberg, Dorsey Testify on Russia as Google’s Chair Stays Empty on bloomberg.com