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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, left, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Washington. (Image via CNN Newsource)

Twitter, Facebook testify on foreign influence and anti-conservative bias

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WASHINGTON (Circa) — Senior executives from Twitter and Facebook faced questions on Capitol Hill Wednesday, continuing a series of hearings on the role of social media companies in politics and national security.

Appearing before the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey addressed the challenges of combating foreign influence operations, hate speech and malicious bots while expressing their commitment to free speech on social media, which Dorsey repeatedly referred to as the new "public square."

Facebook, Twitter pledge to defend against foreign intrusion

Later in the day, Dorsey was brought before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a more contentious interrogation from lawmakers claiming the social media giant was demonstrating systematic bias against conservative voices.

TWITTER'S CONSERVATIVE BIAS CAUSED BY ALGORITHMS

Reading an opening statement tweeted in real time, Jack Dorsey defended his company against the allegations repeatedly raised by Republicans and President Donald Trump that Twitter was intentionally blocking conservative voices on the platform.

"We don't consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions. Period. Impartiality is our guiding principle," Dorsey said. "Twitter cannot rightly serve as a public square if it’s constructed around the personal opinions of its makers."

In recent weeks, Twitter has been accused of "shadow banning" prominent conservative voices including Donald Trump Jr., the chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and three Republican members of Congress.

Faced with the accusation of impartial treatment of conservatives, Dorsey explained that the blocking was the result of a failed experiment.

The company was testing a new algorithm that relied on hundreds of signals, including the behavior of a person's followers, to determine which users should be shown, downranked or filtered. After effectively blocking 600,000 accounts and a number of legitimate handles, Dorsey said the company stopped using the system.

The signals were "not relevant and not fair," Dorsey said. "This was a mistake by Twitter which we corrected," he continued, adding, "It's important for us to be able to experiment freely...[it's] the only way we will learn."

Some lawmakers did not seem convinced with the defense and pointed to examples where liberal users were not banned for hostile, threatening tweets but conservatives were blocked.

The hearing was briefly interrupted by Laura Loomer, a conservative activist and investigator with Project Veritas. She accused Dorsey of "censoring conservatives" and "trying to influence the election" to benefit Democrats.

Earlier in the day, right-wing radio personality and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones crashed the Senate hearing with Facebook and Twitter. In an impromptu press conference, Jones called on Congress and President Trump to "shut down" the social media companies. He argued they were attempting to "purge conservative voices" and had acted as "giant Democratic bots."

Jones was blocked by Apple, Facebook, Google last month and temporarily banned by Twitter. The companies removed his accounts for violating their terms of service against hate speech and bullying.

TWITTER PREVIEWS 'MASSIVE SHIFTS' IN PLATFORM

As part of a pitch to improve the overall "health" of public discourse and the digital public square, Jack Dorsey unveiled plans to fundamentally change how Twitter engages its users.

"Every time someone opens up our app, we are implicitly incentivizing them to do something or not do something," Dorsey told senators Wednesday morning. For 12 years, the platform incentivized adding followers and getting retweets. "I believe we need to question to fundamental incentives that are in our product today."

Dorsey previewed some changes that may include a different way of ranking users. Rather than incentivizing users to grow the number of followers, Dorsey suggested a different metric based on what a user contributes to Twitter and the "digital public square."

The changes now under consideration will create "massive shifts" in how Twitter and other players in the social media space operate, Dorsey said.

SENATE INTELLIGENCE FOCUSES ON FOREIGN INFLUENCE

The Wednesday Senate hearing marked the fourth and final hearing on how social media has been used for foreign and domestic political influence campaigns against the American public.

Google was invited to participate in the hearing but the company was unable to send a high-ranking representative. Members expressed their disappointment to an empty seat in the hearing room with a Google placard.

What began as a probe into Russian active measures during the 2016 presidential election has expanded as Twitter and Facebook recently took down hundreds of accounts tied to an Iranian political influence campaign.

"Without question, positive things are happening," said Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C. "But clearly, this problem is not going away. I'm not even sure it's trending in the right direction."

Burr warned that foreign countries or other influencers that can control the flow of information on social media are "in a position to win wars without firing a shot."

Facebook and Twitter shut down Russia and Iran linked accounts

Both Sandberg and Dorsey said they were taking the threat seriously. In addition to removing accounts related to Iranian political influence campaigns, both companies said they were scaling up efforts to prevent the misuse of their platforms.

Worldwide, Facebook disabled more than 1 billion fake accounts between October 2017 and March 2018. The company is also working with third-party fact-checkers to curb the spread of fake news and false information with alerts for users warning them of potential false information before they share a story.

Twitter is now identifying and challenging 8 to 10 million suspicious accounts every week and preventing more than half a million accounts from logging in to Twitter every day.

Dorsey also revealed that Twitter might soon offer users a tool to identify when they are engaging with bots. The company has been considering the move over the past year and to the extent it is able to detect them, it is looking to "label and add context" to automated accounts.

"We‘re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one," Dorsey told lawmakers. "We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats."

That defense has included partnering with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement entities and other social media companies to share threat information and best practices, particularly ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Facebook and Twitter both applauded the Trump administration's new Foreign Influence Task Force. The task force, headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has provided the companies with a sense of threat trends and helped them identify the origin and intentions of suspicious actors on their platforms.

SELECTIVELY DEFENDING DEMOCRACY?

Both Sandberg and Dorsey acknowledged being caught flat-footed by Russia's exploitation of social media in 2016 and accepted responsibility for preventing such attacks in the future.

"Everyone here today knows this is an arms race and that means we need to be even more vigilant," Sandberg said. "Nothing less than the integrity of our democratic institutions, processes and ideals are at stake."

Dorsey said that Twitter's interests were aligned with the American people and said their business model and "the original privilege and liberty" used to create Twitter depended on finding solutions to the problems of foreign disinformation campaigns and other abuses of the platform.

The executives sounded a strong defense of American values but were confronted with allegations that their commitment to free speech ended at the U.S. border.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pressed the companies about their work with repressive regimes like China, where the government has requested social media companies restrict stories, or Vietnam, which has reportedly asked companies to store user data and hand it over to the government. Rubio also cited a request by the Turkish government asking Twitter to block more than 12,000 accounts suspected of promoting anti-government activities. Twitter has reportedly blocked 700.

Sandberg categorically denied enabling repressive regimes, saying Facebook supports democratic principles around the world. "We would only operate in a country when in keeping with our values," she said.

Dorsey admitted Twitter has a policy allowing for per-country content removal, meaning content is not visible to those within the boundaries of a country but can be seen anywhere else in the world. "We would like to fight for every person able to speak freely," he said, "We have to realize it's going to take some bridges to get there."

SENATORS RELUCTANT TO REGULATE

Though there have been active conversations about federal regulation of social media, senators appeared more interested in how the companies were regulating themselves.

Sen. Burr told reporters that the committee is not actively looking at regulations but is in "the collaborative stage with the companies."

He told Circa that the companies are learning how to identify concerning trends and are "able to address those more effectively" than the federal government. Rather than regulation, Burr said he wants to ensure cooperation between the private companies, the government and law enforcement. "I think this is a win-win," he noted.

The committee's vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, published a white paper with policy recommendations for the companies to consider. The white paper suggested greater data privacy controls, authenticating accounts, labeling bots and a public campaign to improve online literacy.

By and large, the social media executives left the Senate hearing unscathed. The reaction on Wall Street was less friendly. By the end of the day, Facebook was down 2 percent and Twitter fell more than 6 percent.

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