Twitter, Facebook Face US Congress Over Misinformation

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The US Senate quizzes Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg as midterm elections loom

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey was apologetic about what he called the social media platform’s shortcomings in testimony before Congress this week, while Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, emphasised the company’s “determination” in the face of foreign powers’ efforts to manipulate elections.

The two answered questions before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of an inquiry into the use of internet platforms by foreign countries to attempt to influence election results.  The inquiry comes ahead of US midterm elections this year.

Both companies have been accused of allowing companies such as Russia to place content intended to have an effect on voter sentiment during election periods, including the 2016 presidential elections.

Google was also invited to attend, but after the committee declined the delegate it offered, the company was represented by an empty chair.

Jack_Dorsey
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey

‘We will keep fighting’

The Senate had invited Larry Page, Google co-founder and chief executive of Google parent Alphabet, to attend, but the company had offered only chief legal officer Kent Walker.

The Campaign for Accountability, a non-profit ethics watchdog, recently reported that it had posed as a foreign propaganda factory and was able to place political advertising on Google’s ad network.

Twitter’s Dorsey acknowledged his company had been “unprepared” for the platform’s use in election manipulation.

“Abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, disinformation campaigns and divisive filter bubbles,” he said. “That’s not a healthy public square.”

Sandberg, for her part, emphasised the company was prepared to out-fight those who were looking to misuse Facebook.

“We are more determined than our opponents and we will keep fighting,” she said.

Little new information emerged from the hearing, with senators quizzing the executives on topics such as why those spreading conspiracy theories weren’t banned, or whether Twitter unfairly reduced the visibility of accounts in a way that favoured Democrats over Republicans.

On the former issue, both replied that such actions don’t break their terms of service. Likewise, Wikileaks and Julian Assange are permitted to use the platforms because they, too, have not broken the companies terms of service, the executives said in response to specific questions.

‘Unfair’ algorithms

Regarding the latter, Dorsey said that at one point Twitter’s filters had “unfairly” made some 600,000 accounts less visible, due to the fact that accounts were being de-emphasised based on the activities of people following those accounts. He said he didn’t know the political affiliation of those accounts, but said Twitter “does not use political ideology to make any decisions”.

When another senator asked if Twitter would consider archiving suspended accounts and making them available for analysis, Dorsey said the company would need to look into the legal issues of doing so. He said Twitter is considering a transparency report around account suspensions.

When asked how many Facebook accounts are “inauthentic”, Sandberg put the figure at between 3 and 4 percent of the total. Based on Facebook’s reported 2.23 billion active users, that would mean about 67 million to 89 million were in some way “inauthentic”.

When asked how Facebook planned to deal with people making false claims about current events on the platform, Sandberg replied that the company employs fact checkers and makes efforts to decrease the spread of misinformation.

“Bad speech can be countered by good speech,” she added.

Internet companies have also been accused of failing to act quickly enough in removing militant or extremist material from their platforms in the wake of attacks in European capitals over the past few years.

The European Commission said this week it is planning to propose legislation later this month that would force companies to remove such materials with in an hour after it has been reported.

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