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Allegations that social media companies are biased against conservatives and censoring right-wing content have become a common narrative on right-wing media and, ironically, recurrent content on the same social media platforms the narrative targets. These claims are just another iteration of the long-term right-wing effort to brand most of the mainstream press as biased against conservatives in an attempt to “work the refs” and get favorable treatment, this time applied to tech giants.
But many of the episodes used to push allegations of censorship or bias can actually be explained through technical arguments in which political motivations play no role. And that showcases, at best, a preoccupying level of digital illiteracy among those making the allegations and, at worst, the inherent bad faith of these claims.
As explained previously by Media Matters’ Parker Molloy, this playbook has been working for conservatives for over half a century, at least since “Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read ‘Eastern Liberal Press.’” The strategy of putting the onus of proving neutrality on the mainstream press worked -- media have since over-represented conservatives, engaged in false equivalences, offered platforms to far-right hacks in the name of balance, and prioritized negative coverage of Democratic politicians -- and the same playbook is now being applied to tech giants.
This, too, seems to be working: These platforms have groveled in response to accusations of bias by tapping extremist figures and far-right grifters as advisers or by having their leadership appear on right-wing propaganda shows to appease right-wing audiences.
Moreover, in what seem like efforts to avoid accusations of right-wing content censorship, tech platforms have let racism proliferate undeterred, making social media both an unsafe space for members of vulnerable communities and a valuable tool for dangerous far-right radicalization and recruitment.
But many of the episodes that have been used to help right-wing media built a useful narrative can actually be explained by technical reasons unrelated to bias or censorship, including anti-spam policies used on tech platforms to combat inauthentic behavior or digital illiteracy on the part of users. What follows is a noncomprehensive list of examples:
A conservative site complained of bias because autocomplete search results on Google didn’t show the lack of new indictments stemming from the Trump-Russia investigation, ignoring the platform’s autocomplete policies against character denigration.As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy pointed out on Twitter, right-wing site Washington Free Beacon accused Google of bias against President Donald Trump because its search bar autocomplete results didn’t point users to the news that there had been no new indictments related to the special counsel investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Google search liaison Danny Sullivan directly addressed the complaint, explaining that to avoid character denigration, the platform’s autocomplete policies specifically avoid offering predictions that contain “indictment” next to a person’s name. Sullivan had to reiterate his explanation after Washington Free Beacon promoted its article again without clarifying political bias was not playing a role in the autocomplete results.
Those alleging that a temporary loss of Twitter followers was indicative of the platform’s bias against anti-abortion movie Unplanned failed to understand Twitter’s “ban evasion” mechanisms. On April 1, a number of right-wing media figures and politicians accused Twitter of deliberately censoring anti-abortion movie Unplanned after the Twitter account for the movie lost followers temporarily. As explained by NBC’s Ben Collins, Twitter responded that the temporary loss of followers wasn’t about the Unplanned account itself, but came because an account linked to the Unplanned account had violated Twitter rules, triggering the platform’s automated “ban evasion” mechanisms, which aim to limit users banned from the platform from coming back by using alternative accounts. As Collins pointed out, Twitter’s ban evasion systems identify accounts that could be linked in different ways, including by shared IP or email addresses. Shortly after, Twitter manually overturned the automated system and restored the Unplanned movie account, noting that follower counts can take time to replenish.
Here's my stab at a Human English version of what happened with the abortion movie conservative censorship campaign on Twitter.
Somebody involved with the movie's account tripped a ban evasion sensor, and there's a reason for it. pic.twitter.com/92rAK0pGp5
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) April 1, 2019
Conservatives incorrectly interpreted temporary account activity limitations meant to stave off inauthentic, spammy activity as censorship. Platforms are known to limit the number of comments or likes single accounts can make in a determined period of time to stave off spam, automated behavior, and inauthentic activity; authentic accounts managed by real people can be affected by these limitations whenever their behavior matches automation patterns. Reportedly, different limits apply to different accounts depending on how old they are. Yet Donald Trump Jr. and White House social media director Dan Scavino have claimed they’re being censored when this has allegedly happened to them.
There have been accusations of “#censorship” based on “a crazy drop in new followers,” but there are unrelated reasons for altered follower counts. Trump Jr. has also claimed that drops in followers or stagnant follower counts amount to “#censorship.” However, Instagram has experienced glitches that have affected follower counts for many accounts, and the platform’s policies that aim to reduce inauthentic activity have in the past caused account purges that result in diminished follower counts for users displaying automated behavior. President Donald Trump made a similar accusation against Twitter, claiming to have lost followers. As Mashable pointed out, users across the political spectrum lose followers as a result of purges, or removals of “inactive accounts and fake profiles.” In fact, a Twitter purge in the summer of 2018 cost former President Barack Obama more followers than Fox’s Sean Hannity.
A Republican lawmaker complained that a Google search mainly returned negative results about unpopular Republican legislation, saying it was evidence of bias, but in fact it was likely reflective of an overwhelming amount of criticism. During a December 11 hearing before Congress, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) cited “a firsthand experience” to ask Google CEO Sundar Pichai why the first few pages of results he found on Google about the Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act showed so much negative criticism. Chabot also questioned why the majority of results of Google searches for the Republican tax cuts criticized them as favoring the rich. As Pichai explained, search results are not based on political ideology. What Chabot seemed to not understand was that Google search returns are actually based on rankings (a site that is ranked high appears higher on search results) that depend on factors like domain authority, which is calculated by the number and reliability of sites that link to it, among other things. Which is to say, negative results are evidence that sites with high domain authority are referring to the search term in negative ways -- something that has more to do with the substance of the search term than the search engine itself.
Another legislator complained to Google that an iPhone displayed negative language about him, implying it was evidence of Google’s bias, but the phone was manufactured by Apple. During the same December hearing in which Google’s Pichai testified, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) -- whose extremist record includes explicit endorsements of white supremacists -- complained that his 7-year-old granddaughter had been exposed to negative language about him on her iPhone. King said, "And I’m not going to say into the record what kind of language was used around that picture of her grandfather, but I’d ask you: How does that show up on a 7-year-old’s iPhone, who’s playing a kids game?” As Pichar said, Google does not manufacture iPhones; Apple does. Moreover, even if the hardware in question had been a Google-manufactured Android, King’s complaint displayed his own digital illiteracy more than any possible tech platform bias directed against him.
A congressman alleged that Google is biased because it showed negative information from his Wikipedia page in its search results, while his own staff’s edits to his page were not approved by Wikipedia editors. While questioning Google’s Pichai during the December hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) took issue with Google’s search results displaying details from his Wikipedia page when his name is searched, because the “liberal editors around the world” of the free encyclopedia “put up a bunch of garbage” about him, while the “proper, honest” edits his own chief of staff made to Gohmert’s page were not approved. As Motherboard’s reporting on this matter has explained, what’s displayed on Google’s knowledge panels isn’t evidence of bias, but of the tech giant’s “cynical, damaging, and unfair over-reliance on Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.”
PragerU alleged that removal of far-right content on platforms was based on “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas,” but an expert found “plausible, non-ideologically motivated explanations” for the removal. After online propaganda machine PragerU accused platforms of “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas” for removing PragerU videos (and then reinstating them after admitting a mistake), an expert “reviewed several of the videos” and found explanations for their removal that had little to do with political bias. As Data & Society’s Francesca Tripodi explained, some videos contained language that could have been picked up by platforms’ automated systems and then -- when reviewed by third-party moderators that are sometimes outsourced to the Philippines -- the reviewers placed more importance on the specific language than on the political substance of the video. Tripodi also pointed out that the platforms’ lack of process transparency could have contributed to right-wing cries of censorship and bias.
Right-wing outlets affected by a Facebook purge claimed it was evidence of anti-right-wing bias. In fact, it was evidence of spammy behavior. Right-wing outlets claimed that the removal of right-wing content pages showed Facebook was biased against the right. Yet Facebook explained in an October 11 blog post that the reasoning behind the removal of over 800 pages and accounts was based on user violations of the platform’s rules against spam and “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” According to Gizmodo’s report at the time, Facebook pointed out that while the spammy behavior the platform targeted for removal seemed financially motivated, the pages were “at least using political content to drive traffic to their ad-supported websites.” Prominent amplification networks of right-wing content were affected by the purge -- but it was because the pages were in violation of the platform’s guidelines regarding “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which had nothing to do with the pages’ political alignment.
An allegation that Facebook “deboosts” right-wing content was not supported by hard evidence. A Media Matters study found right-wing political pages and left-wing political pages on Facebook have about the same amount of interactions. Donald Trump Jr. has devoted media appearances and columns to pushing generalized claims of censorship from Big Tech. In a March 17 column published by The Hill, Trump Jr. pointed to Facebook documents published by serial bullshitter James O’Keefe to allege that the site targeted conservative posts for “deboost”-ing. A new Media Matters study of content from 395 Facebook pages that regularly post about American political news between July 2, 2018, and March 17, 2019, shows that not only did left-leaning and right-leaning pages have roughly the same engagement numbers, but -- between January 14 and March 17, the weeks leading up to this new wave of conservative censorship claims -- right-leaning pages on average actually received more interactions than left-leaning pages.
Alex Kaplan and Natalie Martinez contributed research for this piece.
Twitter consulted with a right-wing operative with links to extremism
In efforts to appease fits of manufactured conservative rage over the moderation of hateful content on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter have relied on the advice of anti-LGBTQ extremists and far-right grifters “to help them figure out who should be banned and what’s considered unacceptable.”
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Facebook sought out the advice of right-wing groups including extremists like the virulently anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council (FRC) and its president, Tony Perkins. Perkins has compared same-sex marriage to incest, blamed marriage equality and abortion for a destructive hurricane, and called pedophilia a “homosexual problem.” He is clearly not equipped to be an arbitrator on content that oppresses, harassed, and erases minorities. Perkins, along with FRC, has actively opposed LGBTQ equality around the world, supporting a law in Uganda that could have punished “repeat offenders” of same-sex sexual activity with the death penalty, and collaborating with a hate group that worked to pass Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. Domestically, Perkins also called for the State Department to stop supporting LGBTQ rights after President Donald Trump was elected.
Moreover, FRC senior fellow Ken Blackwell has used his Facebook page to regularly push out links from right-wing propaganda sites that have a history of promoting anti-Muslim fake news and conspiracy theories. Blackwell also took part in what was seemingly a promotional campaign with Liftable Media, which owns right-wing propaganda sites like The Western Journal and relies on right-wing media figures to draw online traffic to its pages. And he has shared misleading memes and content from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the company behind the 2016 presidential election interference on Facebook. Blackwell is also on the board of the NRA, and once blamed the mass shooting at UCSB by a men's rights supporter on marriage equality.
The Journal’s article also reports that the Heritage Foundation, which has a long history of climate denial and gets funding from fossil fuel companies, has recently “forged a relationship with Facebook.” On Facebook, Heritage Foundation’s media arm, The Daily Signal, has put out anti-science garbage like “Why climate change is fake news,” contributing to Facebook’s climate-denial problem. In 2013, Heritage came under fire for hiring a researcher who wrote that Hispanic immigrants may never "reach IQ parity with whites." (The researcher later resigned following outrage.)
Twitter has also sought the advice of right-wing grifters and anti-abortion advocates. According to the Journal, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been in contact with Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, and Norquist has used that access to successfully lobby for conservatives who had trouble getting anti-abortion ads on Twitter. Anti-abortion groups have a habit of claiming censorship in order to bully social media platforms into allowing them to run “inflammatory” content.
Dorsey also privately sought the advice of Ali Akbar, a right-wing personality with a prominent Twitter presence, when dealing with the question of whether to remove conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from the platform. (After a murky process filled with half-measures to address Jones’ many policy violations, Twitter and its streaming service Periscope finally removed Jones.) Akbar’s history of promoting hateful content on Twitter and Periscope makes him a poor choice for a consultant on hateful content. He once hosted Matt Colligan (“Millennial Matt”) -- a participant in the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA -- for a Periscope video in which Colligan waved a flag that had a Nazi swastika. Akbar, who has claimed his talks with Dorsey have been going on for months, was recently briefly suspended from Twitter, seemingly after a tweet in which he accused media of egging on a “civil war in America” and urged his followers to buy guns and ammo. His account was reinstated within a couple of days.
These examples show tech platforms’ tendency of caving to conservative whims in order to appease manufactured rage over baseless claims of censorship and bias. Evidence shows that right-wing pages drastically outnumber left-wing pages on Facebook, and under Facebook’s algorithm changes, conservative meme pages outperform all other political news pages. Across platforms, right-wing sources dominate topics like immigration coverage, showing the cries of censorship are nothing more than a tactic. And judging by tech companies’ willingness to cater to these tantrums, the tactic appears to be working.
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In addition to right-wing conspiracy theories, no one on either side of the aisle asked Dorsey about reportedly personally intervening to keep Alex Jones on the platform
On September 5, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to address Twitter’s content moderation. While some of the hearing focused on other issues, such as harassment on the platform, the better part of it was devoted to the baseless and debunked claims of bias against conservatives.
Compared to the Senate intelligence committee hearing earlier in the day with Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about foreign actors using tech platforms for information warfare operations, the House committee hearing did little to inform Americans of the ways Twitter is building a healthier public space.
Here are some of the worst moments from the hearing.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) asked Dorsey about certain congressional members’ names not showing up as auto-suggestions in the search bar, a bug that Twitter has claimed to have fixed. Dorsey noted it impacted more than 600,000 accounts, and Barton suggested more Republicans were targeted than Democrats. When Dorsey said the platform’s algorithms do not take “any affiliation, philosophy, or viewpoint” into account, Barton said, “That’s hard to stomach. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company has discriminated against conservatives, most of whom happen to be Republican.”
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) directly cited a widely criticized July Vice article that had claimed Twitter had “shadow banned” prominent Republicans in search results, a piece that other Republicans (such as Barton) also alluded to in the hearing. Many in the tech world criticized the Vice article at the time for being “based on a misunderstanding of the concept of shadow banning,” and Vice later reported that the issue -- a bug rather than a “shadow ban” -- was fixed. Dorsey also noted in his opening statement that Twitter in its own study found “no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican.”
Nonetheless, Scalise, the House majority whip, used the Vice report to claim only Republicans had been targeted, saying it was “a concern that a lot of us have if there is a real bias in the algorithm as it was developed” and suggesting Twitter employees purposely targeted conservatives when creating the platform’s algorithms.
Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) cited “daily highlights” emails Twitter sends its users containing current noteworthy tweets to suggest Twitter was biased against conservatives. He then named some of the accounts whose tweets were recommended to him -- the majority of them were media figures covering politics -- and complained that almost all of the recommended tweets came from “Trump-bashing” people and urged Dorsey to “take that into consideration.”
After pressing Dorsey on his personal political affiliation, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) criticized Twitter for briefly suspending Candace Owens, the communications director of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA and who has ties to the far-right, for mocking tweets from Sarah Jeong, a tech journalist whom The New York Times had just hired as an editorial board member. After her hiring was announced, far-right trolls targeted Jeong for her old sarcastic tweets (tactics similar to those used during the far-right misogynistic online movement known as Gamergate). Mullin then read some of Jeong’s tweets aloud to suggest a double standard because Twitter had not suspended her.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), suggesting anti-conservative Twitter bias, said that his “20-something female staffer” had created a dummy Twitter account and only entered her email and Washington, D.C., phone number. Duncan claimed that the accounts Twitter suggested following were only “left-wing political types.” He then said no celebrities or athletes were recommended to her, saying she “didn’t even get Taylor Swift, Chris Pratt, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kim Kardashian.” Dorsey explained that given the Washington, D.C., area code she had provided as information, Twitter likely recommended to her the most followed and engaged with accounts in the capital area, to which Duncan responded by complaining that D.C. athletes were not listed in the recommendations either.
It has been clear in recent weeks that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was getting special treatment from Twitter. Somehow, just days after The Wall Street Journal reported that Dorsey had personally intervened to keep the accounts of Jones and “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer on the platform, neither figure was brought up during the entire hearing.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testified before the Senate intelligence committee this morning. Here’s what you need to know.
This morning, the Senate intelligence committee questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The hearing was the culmination of a two-year investigation into Russian election interference by the committee and 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. As Angelo Carusone said earlier: “The tech industry’s failure to grapple with its roles in allowing -- and sometimes even enabling -- the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis.” Today Americans had the opportunity to hear from Sandberg and Dorsey directly what Facebook and Twitter have done to protect them since 2016.
The first time tech executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before the Senate intelligence committee last year, committee members took a hostile posture. Committee chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) both scolded Facebook, Twitter, and Google for not taking election interference or the fact that their platforms were weaponized by foreign propagandists, seriously. At one point, Warner, frustrated by how little the tech companies claimed to know about what was happening on their own platforms said, “Candidly, your companies know more about Americans, in many ways, than the United States government does. The idea that you had no idea any of this was happening strains my credibility.”
Ten months later, as I watched Dorsey and Sandberg testify before the committee, it felt like relations had thawed -- perhaps not with Google, who refused to send its CEO and instead was represented by an empty chair, but certainly with Facebook and Twitter. Members of the committee continued to ask tough questions and press Dorsey and Sandberg when they weren’t forthcoming, but the atmosphere had changed. I get the sense that after nearly a year of conversations and hearings, the working relationship is perhaps in a better place.
Of course the tech companies have taken a beating in the press since that first hearing. We’ve since learned that Russian trolls got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP for actual local events via Facebook. Americans have now seen the thousands of ads and organic content that Russian propagandists deployed on Facebook. Conspiracy theories about the Parkland shooting survivors, most of whom were still minors, spread like wildfire on social media. News broke that Cambridge Analytica had breached data of at least 50 million Facebook users. Russia is still interfering in our political conversation, and, Iran is now gaming the platforms as well.
This morning’s hearing was probably the last time we’ll hear from the tech companies or the committee before the midterm election. Here’s what we’ve learned (and what we still don’t know):
Facebook and Twitter made a lot of promises to the committee in the 2017 hearing. Facebook and Twitter both promised to change their ad policies, enhance user safety, build better teams and tools to curb malicious activity, better collaborate with law enforcement and one another, and communicate more transparently with the public.
How’d they do?
Updated ads policy. Both Facebook and Twitter have announced new political and issue ad policies. Both companies have also announced their support for the Honest Ads Act. During the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Facebook specifically about voter suppression ads which both Russia and the Trump campaign used in 2016. Sandberg said that in the future, this kind of targeting would not be allowed, though she didn’t specify if she was talking about just foreign actors or American political campaigns as well.
User safety. Perhaps the most telling moment of the hearing was Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked Sandberg about the real harm done when real people (not just fake accounts) intentionally spread conspiracy theories. Sandberg’s solution, rather than removing the incendiary content, was to have third-party fact-checkers look at potentially incorrect content because, according to her, Facebook isn’t the arbiter of truth, mark the content as false, warn users before they share the content and present users with “alternative facts.”
Build better teams and tools to curb malicious activity. In her opening statement, Sandberg said: “We’re investing heavily in people and technology to keep our community safe and keep our service secure. This includes using artificial intelligence to help find bad content and locate bad actors. We’re shutting down fake accounts and reducing the spread of false news. We’ve put in place new ad transparency policies, ad content restrictions, and documentation requirements for political ad buyers. We’re getting better at anticipating risks and taking a broader view of our responsibilities. And we’re working closely with law enforcement and our industry peers to share information and make progress together.” Dorsey also highlighted Twitter’s progress in his opening statement, saying: “We‘ve made significant progress recently on tactical solutions like identification of many forms of manipulation intending to artificially amplify information, more transparency around who buys ads and how they are targeted, and challenging suspicious logins and account creation.”
Better collaboration with law enforcement and with one another. Committee members asked Dorsey and Sandberg about this multiple times during the hearing. Both agreed that when it came to American security, Twitter and Facebook weren’t in competition and collaborated frequently. They also expressed a good relationship with law enforcement agencies, though Dorsey complained more than once about having too many points of contact.
Communicate more transparently to the public. Committee members pressed both Dorsey and Sandberg to be more transparent. Warner asked Dorsey if Twitter users have a right to know if the account they’re interacting with is a bot. Dorsey agreed to this, adding the caveat that “as far as we can detect them.” Warner suggested to Sandberg that most of Facebook’s users don’t know what data Facebook has on them or how that data is used. Further, Warner pressed Sandberg, asking if users had a right to know how much their data was worth to Facebook. Wyden pointed out that data privacy is a national security issue as Russians used our own data to target us, saying, “Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) asked Dorsey if Twitter had done enough to disclose to users that they were exposed to IRA propaganda, which Dorsey admitted the platform had not yet done enough.
For every question Sandberg and Dorsey answered during the hearing, there were plenty that they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Most of the time, they promised to follow-up with the committee but here’s what we still don’t know and won’t likely get an answer to before the 2018 elections:
What are the tech companies doing to prepare for “deepfake” video and audio? Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked if the companies were prepared to combat “deepfake” videos and audios, content that is digitally manipulated to look and sound extremely real. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey had a good answer, which is worrisome given that “deepfake” audio and video are just around the corner.
Are the tech companies keeping an archive of suspended and removed accounts and will make this archive available to researchers and/or the general public? Both Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and James Lankford (R-OK) asked about this. which is an important question, especially for academic researchers. Neither Sandberg nor Dorsey had a clear answer.
Anything to be done with the selling of opioids online? This question came from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) who also asked Sandberg and Dorsey if their companies bore and moral responsibility for deaths caused by opioid sales on social media.
How much did tech companies profit from Russian propaganda? Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has asked Facebook this question repeatedly both during intelligence and judiciary committee hearings. The most follow-up she’s received from Facebook is that the number is “immaterial.”
Burr and Warner generally close these hearings by previewing what happens next. This time there was no such preview. Given that the election is almost two months away, that’s a bit unsettling. But the reality is that with the current makeup in Congress (and the executive branch), the government isn’t going to do anything else to protect Americans. No legislation will be passed, and if social media companies are called to testify before the House again anytime soon, it will likely be another circus hearing devoted to the right’s pet issue of social media censorship. On the Senate’s part, however, holding tech companies accountable and producing reports is about as much as the intelligence committee can do right now.
Facebook, Twitter, and the absentee Google left today's hearing with questions unresolved and problems nowhere near fixed. Beyond the Senate Intelligence Committee asking pertinent questions, Congress has shown no interest in holding social media companies to account for those issues that remain outstanding.
This morning, the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Russian interference in the 2016 election. The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee are scheduled to question Dorsey about anti-conservative bias on Twitter.
On the Senate intelligence committee hearing, Media Matters’ President Angelo Carusone explained:
The tech industry’s failure to grapple with its roles in allowing -- and sometimes even enabling -- the fake news crisis and foreign interference in American elections is a national security crisis. The Senate intelligence committee is currently our best hope for getting some insight into the steps that tech companies have taken to address known problems. The committee is at least trying.
On balance, committee members have treated this issue with the gravity it warrants and have worked to give the public actionable information about election interference and manipulation of the information ecosystem.
It’s been two years though since the fake news crisis of 2016 -- and for the committee to keep its passing grade, it’s going to need to put more pressure on these platforms to not only address the problems we know about, but to start focusing on preventing the next fake news crisis that will be fueled by synthetic video and synthetic audio.
On the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Carusone added:
In contrast to their Senate colleagues, who are at least trying to stay focused on this national security crisis, House Energy and Commerce Committee has turned its inquiry into an embarrassing partisan mess steeped in conspiracy theories and right-wing chicanery. House Republicans don’t seem at all concerned with understanding and preventing foreign interference and instead are more concerned with helping Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, work the refs so that they can cheat the system like they did in 2016.
These hearings should be focused on things that we know are real, like foreign intervention, bots, algorithmic manipulations and other cheating -- where a lot more needs to be done in order to neutralize those threats.
In 2016, right-wing efforts to game the refs led Facebook to make significant changes its trending topics section that ended up greatly contributing to amplification of fake news as well as changes to its ad approval rules that helped the Trump campaign execute an aggressive voter suppression campaign. And baseless cries of bias no doubt contributed to Twitter’s inconsistent policy enforcement and inadequate response to its climate of harassment. So, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee working hand-in-hand with right-wing political activities to help work the refs is alarming and worthy of scorn.
Functioning democracy is actually at stake. Neither Twitter nor Congress should be wasting its time with this baseless and partisan bullshit.
The six questions that tech executives need to answer before Congress
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.
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.
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.
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.