A group of bipartisan senators has agreed: The spread of disinformation and misinformation through social media presents a danger to national security. It must be stopped. But at a hearing that included executives from Meta, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter, Republicans and Democrats didn’t get any closer to agreeing on a solution.
Senators from Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs met Wednesday to talk to former and present social media executives. They wanted to understand how extreme ideologies and hate speech can place the U.S. in danger. The Senators got bogged down with partisan talk points, which ultimately didn’t seem to help them find a way forward to regulate social media companies.
It’s a critical moment for the major social media companies. The hearing took the place almost exactly one year after whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward to allege that Facebook and Instagram knowingly downplayed the harm its products caused young people, and the day after Twitter whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko spoke before Congress about what he called “egregious” security failures.
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At Wednesday’s hearing, Senators on both sides of the aisle called on the companies to be more transparent, said child sexual abuse content needed to be more urgently addressed, and raised concerns over how cartels use the platforms to conduct illegal activity, including human smuggling. The bipartisanship ended there. Most Democratic Senators questioned the social media executives about how algorithms fuel hate groups, how the companies’ algorithms targets users, and how user data is kept and secured. Republican Senators, on the other hand, spent considerable time questioning the executives about their platform’s decisions to censor some COVID-19 content, and TikTok’s association with China.
“People were censored, eminently qualified doctors who had the courage and compassion to treat COVID patients with cheap, generic, widely available drugs,” said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican who also expressed concerns about the political leanings of the people employed at the social media companies and whether they could exert influence on elections. “I think hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives because you did not allow a second opinion to be published on your platforms.”
Social media executives were unable to answer many criticisms or questions from either party. The Democratic chair of the committee, Senator Gary Peters from Michigan, questioned Chris Cox, Meta Chief Product Officer, and Neal Mohan, YouTube Chief Product Office, about the reasons it took Facebook years to realize it had to delete QAnon content. (Meta is formerly Facebook Inc. and owns Instagram and Facebook. “This stuff was on your platforms for years, so it took you a long time to come to the conclusion,” Peters said. “You caught it, but not until 16% of the American people are part of this insidious theory.”
“To be very clear, we have no incentive to post this content, to promote it in any nature,” Mohan said in response.
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Josh Hawley (a Missouri Republican) grilled TikTok chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas about whether the Chinese Communist Party could access U.S. data. Pappas said the Chinese government has never been given access to user data, but could not state whether the company’s employees in China are members of the communist party. “Nobody on this panel would be able to tell you the political affiliation of any individual,” she said.
The committee was also present at the time by former executives of Twitter and Facebook. sat on the panel, and warned Senators that these companies’ lack of transparency poses a danger to the U.S. “Today, you don’t know what’s happening at the platform. You have to trust the companies,” said Brian Boland, a former high-level Facebook executive. “I lost my trust… I think we should move beyond trust to helping our researchers and journalists understand the platforms better.”
Near the end of the hearing none of the social media executives could provide data about 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 frustrated that the chief product officers, all of you, who have a prominent seat at the table when these business decisions are made, were not more prepared to speak to specifics about your product development process,” Peters said in his closing statement. “Your companies continue to really avoid sharing some very important information.”
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