Executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in another tech company hearing that revealed little, if any, new information. Though the hearing was meant to address “the content filtering practices of social media giants,” presumably focusing on the conservative talking point that the companies are “biased” against conservative viewpoints, Democrats in the committee took the opportunity to castigate President Donald Trump for his disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and highlight abuses of the platforms by Russian operatives to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election.
These attempts to broaden the subject matter led to one of the only telling exchanges of the hearing, which was otherwise unremarkable due to the witnesses’ skill at speaking in vague terms that allowed them to avoid answering specific questions. Louie Gohmert, the Republican congressman from Texas, used his time to rebut the committee’s Democrats and asked the social media representatives whether they have found evidence of intelligence agencies from China, North Korea, or any other country using the platform in a similar manner as the Russians.
Gohmert’s point in asking the question was to demonstrate that the witnesses had come prepared with information only about Russian disinformation campaigns in order to help the Democrats. To be fair, the U.S.’s intelligence agencies have been focusing their investigations on Russia and concluded that the country’s operatives spread propaganda on social media during the campaign to boost Trump’s candidacy. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been cooperating with those investigations, so it makes sense that they would have the most information about Russian election meddling, rather than that of other countries. The information imbalance is not necessarily indicative of bias.
Yet, what was interesting was that all three of the representatives refused to even confirm or deny whether there was any evidence of other foreign governments abusing their platforms. In a tense exchange, Gohmert repeatedly pressed, “I’m asking specifically were any of those other countries besides Russia that were using your platform inappropriately. It should be a simple yes or no.”
After some obfuscating, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, said, “We certainly have seen attacks from people other than Russians. As far as the details of from whom the attacks have come, I would have to have my team follow up with you on those.” Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy and government relations, said, “My guess is that our security team has found attempts at breaching our security from other foreign governments as well, but that information is held confidentially even internally, so I’m going to have to get back to you with the details.” Nick Pickles, Twitter’s senior public policy strategist, said, “I’m happy to follow up on that specific question.”
During a congressional hearing on election meddling in October, Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch said he was not aware of North Korea or China purchasing ads on the platform, though he acknowledged that the countries may have used shell companies to hide their tracks. It’s unclear at the moment whether these companies simply have not investigated whether other countries were also abusing their platforms because they’ve received less scrutiny on that issue or they do have evidence confirming or disproving such meddling but are unwilling to disclose it to the public. It also could be the case that investigations of other countries are ongoing and these companies haven’t come to any conclusions, though the witnesses could have simply explained the situation. Either way, the possibility of other countries abusing the platform is an overlooked matter.