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Execs from Facebook, Twitter face Congress

They tell of anti-meddling defenses

This article was published September 10, 2018 at 9:15 a.m.

WASHINGTON --Facebook and Twitter executives assured Congress on Wednesday that they are aggressively working to root out foreign attempts to sow discord in America, and they pledged to better protect their social networks against manipulation during the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.

Facebook’s No. 2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, and Twitter’s chief executive officer, Jack Dorsey, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in the morning, but there was an empty chair for Google parent company Alphabet, which refused to send a top executive.

In the afternoon, Dorsey went before a House panel alone to address Republican concerns that Twitter is censoring conservatives. Dorsey denied that is happening.

The hearings came at a critical time, two months before the midterm elections and as President Donald Trump has alleged that Twitter is biased against Republican views.

Senators had sharp words for Alphabet CEO Larry Page. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggested the company was a no-show because it was “arrogant.”

Sandberg’s appearance came several months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified at hearings on Capitol Hill.

Like Zuckerberg, she acknowledged the company’s lag in recognizing Russian efforts to manipulate Facebook during and after the 2016 presidential election. Sandberg detailed Facebook’s efforts to fight the problem with manpower and new technology.

“We are even more determined than our adversaries, and we will continue to fight back,” she said.

Dorsey told both committees what his company needs to improve.

Holding his phone throughout the hearings, Dorsey tweeted some of his opening statement to the Senate: “We aren’t proud of how that free and open exchange has been weaponized and used to distract and divide people, and our nation. We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems we’ve acknowledged.”

He added: “Abuse, harassment, troll armies, propaganda through bots and human coordination, misinformation campaigns, and divisive filter bubbles -- that’s not a healthy public square. Worse, a relatively small number of bad-faith actors were able to game Twitter to have an outsized impact.”

Thirteen Russians were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller this year on charges of taking part in a plot to disrupt the 2016 election by creating fake social media accounts that pushed divisive issues.

Both Facebook and Twitter are using artificial intelligence and other increasingly sophisticated technology to combat manipulation. Facebook is going after “inauthenticity,” or fake accounts. Twitter is focusing on analyzing behavioral patterns to find suspicious activity because the social-media platform technically allows “fake” accounts.

The companies have made many policy changes and have caught and banned what they described as malicious accounts over the past year. Still, their business models -- free services that rely on attracting as many users as possible for as long as possible and finding out as much about them as possible -- remain the same, and that has posed challenges in rooting out those bent on mischief.

Dorsey said Twitter has continued to identify accounts that may be linked to the Russian Internet agency cited in Mueller’s indictment. He said Twitter has suspended 3,843 accounts it believes are connected to that agency. Facebook has also taken down pages this year that it believes were tied to the agency.

Lawmakers said Facebook and Twitter had recognized the problem of foreign influence on their platforms and were engaging more with Congress. The lawmakers agreed with the companies that the responsibility to root out foreign interference on social media would also require government help.

“After the election, you were reluctant to admit there was a problem,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the committee, said. “Each of you have come a long way with respect to recognizing the threat.”

AGENCY WEIGHS IN

Yet even as lawmakers recognized the social media companies’ efforts, the Justice Department weighed in on concerns over free speech on social media, raising the prospect of more federal scrutiny.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to meet with state attorneys general later this month to discuss whether tech companies may be “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas,” the Justice Department said Wednesday in a statement.

Agency spokesman Devin O’Malley said those at the meeting also will consider whether tech platforms “may have harmed competition” with their actions, a hint that the Justice Department may be weighing antitrust action against the firms.

The meeting, which had been in the works since before Wednesday’s hearing, is expected to take place in Washington on Sept. 25 -- and at least three state attorneys general have agreed to participate, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak on the record. The person declined to say which states were involved.

The Justice Department’s announcement heightens the stakes for the tech companies in Washington, where policymakers have widely criticized the digital platforms but have refrained from passing legislation or launching investigations into their conduct.

Pressure has been mounting on antitrust officials to scrutinize the tech industry. Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called on the Federal Trade Commission to reopen an investigation into Google and its data practices, as well as its decisions to ban certain types of advertisers from its platform.

At the House hearing, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., cited recent complaints that Twitter limited the visibility of prominent Republicans on its platform -- an accusation echoed by Trump.

“It takes years to build trust, but it only takes 280 characters to lose it,” Walden said.

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