Facebook COO Sherly Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appeared before Congress on Wednesday, September 5, offering testimony on the state of social media. Two congressional hearings were set for the purpose. Alphabet CEO Larry Page and Google CEO Sundar Pichai were also invited but declined to attend, opting instead to send written testimony t0 address issues like Russian meddling in U.S. elections and bias.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hosted the morning session, focusing on efforts being made to keep elections safe. “But we’ve also learned about how vulnerable social media is to corruption and misuse. The very worst examples of this are absolutely chilling and a threat to our democracy,” Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) said.
Facebook and Twitter owned up to their missteps. “We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act,” Sandberg said. “This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love.”
Lawmakers praised the efforts that technology companies have made to take down fake accounts and combat hacking, but they remain skeptical that the companies will be able to fight the good fight alone.
“I’m afraid that there is a lot of work still to do,” Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said. “And I’m skeptical that, ultimately, you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own. Congress is going to have to take action here.”
In a second session before the House Energy and Commerce Committee this afternoon, the technology companies will address bias within social media. President Trump had fired accusations against Google recently for suppressing the voices of conservatives, a charge that Google denied.
More recently, Twitter found itself in hot water after The Wall Street Journal reported that Dorsey had overruled his staff in reversing the bans on Alex Jones and Richard Spencer. Jones is an alt-right conspiracy theorist and Spencer is a white supremacist. Twitter denied the report, but the move spurred users to demand more monitoring on social media for hate speech, violence, threats, and harassment.
“Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules,” Dorsey said in a prepared statement. “We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our rules impartially.”
Social media companies are also under pressure to help users navigate their privacy rights. Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified about the company’s privacy practices when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed the data of more than 87 million Facebook users. Facebook announced a series of changes in an effort to rebuild trust after the controversy.
“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Warner said. “Where we go from here is an open question.”