The Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Wednesday to examine foreign influence campaigns on social media was marked by a notable absence and a couple of odd cameos.
The committee had invited executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google to testify on efforts to prevent bad actors from manipulating their platforms in the run up to the midterm elections. Facebook chose to send COO Sheryl Sandberg. Twitter sent CEO Jack Dorsey. And Google lacked a representative. After Alphabet CEO Larry Page and Google CEO Sundar Pichai both turned down the invite, Google offered up Senior Vice President of Global Affairs Kent Walker in their stead. The committee rebuffed this offer since Walker is not a C-suite executive. A Senate spokesperson told CNN, “The purpose of this hearing is to hear from senior leadership making the decisions, not those operationalizing them.”
Rather than have Walker sit beside Sandberg and Dorsey, the committee instead decided to place an empty chair at the dais in the hearing room. Sen. Mark Warner, vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, pounced on Google at the beginning of his opening remarks. “I’m deeply disappointed that Google, one of the most influential digital platforms in the world, chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee, because I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms,” Warner said. “Given its size and influence, I would have thought that leadership at Google would have wanted to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges.”
Though Google’s absence was conspicuous, most of the buzz on social media at the start of the hearing had to do with surprise appearance of Infowars founder Alex Jones. Facebook and YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, have banned accounts run by Jones and Infowars in recent months for violating the platforms’ community standards. Among other falsehoods over the years, Jones has baselessly claimed that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, which spurred harassment of the victims’ parents. Twitter also temporarily suspended Jones for inciting violence, though it has neglected to take a more definitive enforcement action.
The Infowars firebrand held a press conference outside the hearing room, in which he said, “The real election meddling is by Facebook and Google and others that are shadow banning people.” Jack Posobiec, another conspiracy theorist, was also reportedly present and complained in interviews that he had not been allowed to testify.
Update, 11:30 a.m. EDT: Jones repeatedly interrupted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s interview with reporters outside the hearing room, leading Rubio to threaten to “take care of you myself.” A video of the exchange is here:
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