A A bipartisan group of senators agrees: The spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media poses a homeland security risk and something needs to be done about it. But at a hearing that included executives from Meta, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter, Republicans and Democrats came no closer to agreeing on a solution.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee convened Wednesday to talk with current and former social media executives, hoping to discuss how misinformation and extremist ideologies that fuel hate speech and encourage violence put the United States at risk. But the senators quickly got bogged down in partisan talk that ultimately didn’t seem to get them any closer to finding a way forward to regulate the social media giants.
This is a critical time for major social media companies. The hearing proceeded almost exactly one year after an informer Frances Haugen came forward to claim that Facebook and Instagram were deliberately downplaying the harm their products caused to young people, and the next day a Twitter whistleblower Peter “Mudge” Zatko was talking before Congress for what he called “glaring” security flaws.
Read more: The Twitter whistleblower needs your trust
At Wednesday’s hearing, senators from both sides of the aisle called on companies to be more transparent, said child sexual abuse content needed to be addressed more urgently and raised concerns about how cartels are using the platforms to carry out illegal activity, including people smuggling. But the bipartisanship stopped there. Most Democratic senators questioned social media executives about how algorithms fuel hate groups, how companies’ algorithms target users, and how user data is stored and protected. Republican senators, on the other hand, spent a lot of time questioning executives about their platform’s decisions to censor some of the COVID-19 content and TikTok’s relationship with China.
“People were censored, highly qualified doctors who had the courage and compassion to treat COVID patients with cheap, generic, widely available drugs,” said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican who also expressed concern about the political bias of people employed by social media companies and whether they could influence elections. “I think hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives because you didn’t allow second opinions to be posted on your platforms.”
Social media executives struggled to answer many of the questions and criticisms leveled at them from both sides. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the committee’s Democratic chairman, questioned Meta chief product officer Chris Cox and YouTube chief product officer Neil Mohan about why it took years for Facebook to realize it had to remove QAnon content. (Meta, formerly known as Facebook Inc., owns Facebook and Instagram.) “These things have been on your platforms for years, so it took you a long time to come to the conclusion,” Peters said. “You got it, but not until 16% of the American people buy into this insidious theory.”
“To be very clear, we have no incentive to publish this content, to promote it in any way,” Mohan said in response.
For several minutes, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, challenged TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas over whether members of the Chinese Communist Party had access to user data in the US. Pappas said the Chinese government had never accessed user data, but could not say whether the company’s employees in China were members of the Communist Party. “No one on this panel will be able to tell you the political affiliation of any person,” she said.
Earlier in the day, before the current executives appeared before the committee, former executives of Facebook and Twitter sat on the panel and warned senators that the lack of transparency of these companies poses a danger to the U.S. “Today, you don’t know what’s happening on the platform. You have to trust the companies,” said Brian Boland, a former high-level executive at Facebook. “I’ve lost my trust… I think we need to go beyond trust to help our researchers and journalists better understand the platforms.”
By the end of the hearing, none of the social media executives could provide data on how many engineers work on their platforms, one of many questions they were unable or unwilling to answer to the senators’ satisfaction. “I’ll be honest, I’m disappointed that the chief product officers, all of you who have a prominent seat at the table when these business decisions are made, weren’t more willing to talk about the specifics of your product development process,” said Peters in his closing speech. “Your companies continue to really avoid sharing very important information.”
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