Silicon Valley hikes back up to Capitol Hill this week. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in an open hearing on “foreign influence operations and their use of social media platforms.” Larry Page, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, was invited to testify as well but has so far refused the invitation. The committee plans to have an empty chair at the hearing to illustrate Google’s absence.
This will be the highest profile hearing on Russian interference on social media to date. Thus it’s Congress’ best opportunity to publicly hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for their role in allowing Russian operatives to game their platforms to target Americans with propaganda.
I’ve been following this committee’s investigation from its first open hearing last year. I’ve watched (and often rewatched) every public hearing the committee has held and read every statement and report it’s issued. Here’s what you need to know.
Senate intelligence: The adults in the room
The Senate intelligence committee is tasked with overseeing the 19 entities that make up America’s intelligence community. The committee began investigating possible Russian interference in 2016 elections and collusion with the Trump campaign in January of last year, months before the special counsel’s investigation began. Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) pledged from the start to conduct the investigation in a bipartisan manner, working together to uncover the truth and produce “both classified and unclassified reports.”
So far, Burr and Warner have stayed true to those principles, in stark contrast to their counterparts on the House committee, whose own investigation has become a dumpster fire. Whereas Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and his Republican colleagues in the House seem mostly interested in giving the Trump administration cover, Burr actually seems to understand the gravity of the situation and works alongside Warner accordingly. The committee has produced two unclassified reports so far, the first intended to show election officials, political campaigns, and the general public what Russian attacks looked like in 2016, where government agencies failed in protecting us, and what actionable recommendations federal and state governments could take moving forward. The second report backed the assessment of intelligence agencies that the “Russian effort was extensive and sophisticated, and its goals were to undermine public faith in the democratic process, to hurt Secretary Clinton (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton) and to help Donald Trump.” The committee has also produced classified reports available to federal agencies and state election officials.
To put it another way, for the most part, the committee is acting in good faith and acknowledging reality. Members have gone out of their way to avoid political theater, give the public actionable information about election interference from Russia, and demonstrate what the future could look like. Their open hearings on election interference are the most useful source of information currently available from the U.S. government.
Speaking of political theater, let’s talk about that other tech hearing on the same day
In an impressive feat of counterprogramming, the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on “Twitter’s algorithms and content monitoring,” also with Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, on the same day!
Google, Facebook, and Twitter executives are staple witnesses at congressional hearings, but most of the time we don’t learn all that much from them. This is partly because Congress overall has a severe knowledge gap when it comes to technology issues, but mostly because these hearings often become moments of political theater for members of Congress looking to create a viral moment on YouTube or a fundraising hook.
President Donald Trump and most other elected Republicans seem wholly uninterested in holding the tech companies accountable for election interference by foreign actors, opting instead to complain about censorship of conservatives on social media that doesn’t actually exist. (Trump tweeted last week that Google is “rigged” against him after Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs reported on a sketchy study about the search engine by PJ Media.)
There’s no data to back up the GOP’s claims of censorship. Media Matters studied six months of data from political Facebook pages and found that right-leaning Facebook pages had virtually identical engagement to left-leaning pages and received more engagement than other political pages. The methodology of the PJ Media Google study that Trump mentioned on Twitter makes no sense. And reporters were able to debunk Trump’s most recent claim that Google gave former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union special treatment on the homepage that it did not give to President Trump in a matter of minutes using a screenshot from the pro-Trump subreddit “r/The_Donald.”
Look for Republicans outside of the intelligence committee to try to derail the Senate hearing and focus instead on riling up their base around the mythical censorship issue. The right has been fairly open about the fact that this “major line of escalated attack” is its plan. Hopefully, Republicans on the committee won’t contribute to this line of attack, wasting valuable hearing minutes that should be devoted to election and national security.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to Congress earlier this year is a prime example of how easy it is to derail a hearing. Zuckerberg testified over two days before House and Senate committees. The Senate hearing, held jointly by the judiciary and commerce committees, devolved into Zuckerberg explaining how the internet works to the poorly informed senators. House commerce committee members were more up to speed, but Republican members -- following Ted Cruz’s lead from the day before -- spent most of their time grilling Zuckerberg about nonexistent censorship of social media personalities Diamond and Silk.
What tech companies will need to answer
One thing that always comes across when you watch these hearings is the frustration that members of the committee feel toward the tech industry. Facebook has taken the most heat, but the frustration extends to Twitter and Google too. There’s a lot of blame to go around (Congress hasn’t passed one piece of legislation to protect American voters before the midterm elections), but tech companies allowed their platforms to be weaponized, missed what was happening until it was too late, and remain on the front lines of protecting Americans from attacks that game social media platforms.
Both Facebook and Twitter made a lot of promises to the committee in a 2017 hearing. Tomorrow’s hearing will give committee members an opportunity to report back on promises kept and hold Facebook’s and Twitter’s leadership accountable for promises broken.
In his opening statement at that 2017 hearing, Sean Edgett, Twitter’s general counsel, assured the committee, “We are making meaningful improvements based on our findings. Last week, we announced industry-leading changes to our advertising policies that will help protect our platform from unwanted content. We are also enhancing our safety systems, sharpening our tools for stopping malicious activity, and increasing transparency to promote public understanding of all of these areas. Our work on these challenges will continue for as long as malicious actors seek to abuse our system and will need to evolve to stay ahead of new tactics.”
Facebook vice president and general counsel Colin Stretch promised that “going forward, we are making significant investments. We're hiring more ad reviewers, doubling or more our security engineering efforts, putting in place tighter ad content restrictions, launching new tools to improve ad transparency, and requiring documentation from political ad buyers. We're building artificial intelligence to help locate more banned content and bad actors. We're working more closely with industry to share information on how to identify and prevent threats, so that we can all respond faster and more effectively. And we're expanding our efforts to work more closely with law enforcement.”
Members of the committee also pressed the tech companies to continue to share documents and relevant information with them, cross-check Russian-related accounts that the companies took down during the 2017 French election to see if they also participated in American influence operations, improve algorithms, report back on how much money they made from legitimate ads that ran alongside Russian propaganda, and confirm to the committee the total amount of financial resources they devoted to protecting Americans from future foreign influence attacks.
Beyond what’s been promised, these companies need to answer:
What’s their plan to protect Americans in 2018 (and beyond)? By now, Americans know what Russian interference in 2016 looked like. We also know that Russian meddling hasn’t stopped and that other hostile foreign actors (Iran) are waging their own campaigns against us. The committee should ask Dorsey and Sandberg to walk Americans through their plan to protect their American users from foreign interference and to pledge accountability.
How are they combating algorithmic manipulation on your platforms? Algorithmic manipulation is at the heart of Russian interference operations. Russia weaponized social media platforms to amplify content, spread disinformation, harass targets, and fan the flames of discord. This manipulation warps our social media experience, most of the time without our knowledge. Americans need to know what the tech companies are doing to fight algorithmic manipulation and what new policies have been put in place.
Are their new ad policies effective? Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all rolled out changes in their advertising policies meant to curb the ability of foreign entities to illegally buy ads. It’s time for a report back on how those policies are working and whether any more changes are necessary for the midterm elections.
What support and resources do they need from government? As Facebook’s former chief security officer recently pointed out, “In some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn’t take these issues seriously and that any perpetrators of information warfare against the West will get, at most, a slap on the wrist.” As hard as I’ve been on the tech companies, government’s failures to protect us and the current administration’s complete indifference to the issue are just as abysmal. Americans should know where tech executives believe government is failing and what resources they need to better fight back against foreign interference.
Do they have the right people in the room? Russia used America’s issues with racial resentment in its influence operations. Members of Congress have made the point in past hearings that tech companies’ lack of diversity in their staffs likely contributed to their inability to recognize inauthentic content from Russians posing as, say, #BlackLivesMatter activists online. In fact, #BlackLivesMatters activists attempted to alert Facebook about potentially inauthentic content and were ignored. Americans need to know if Facebook and Twitter have the right team of people in place to fight foreign interference and if those teams include diverse voices.
How are they protecting Americans’ data? Facebook’s record is particularly abysmal here. The company failed to protect user data from being exploited by Cambridge Analytica and still can’t tell us in full what data the company had or what other entities had access to it. Given how common data breaches are and that Russia used data to target Americans, we need to know what steps tech companies are taking to protect us from data theft and the resulting harm.
Twitter and Facebook are American-born companies that make a lot of money from their American users. Having top executives testify on election interference, in an open hearing, is long overdue. As Burr and Warner warned us just a few weeks ago, time is running out. Burr invoked the famous “this is fine” meme to illustrate his point, saying that Congress is “sitting in a burning room calmly with a cup of coffee, telling ourselves ‘this is fine.’”
As any American who uses the internet can tell you, it isn’t.