Future Tense

How to Fix These Terrible Tech Hearings

Let the CEOs fight.

An effigy of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, dressed as a January 6, 2021, insurrectionist is placed near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2021. - Protester set up effigies of Big Tech CEO's as the US Congress holds hearings March 25 about the spread of disinformation and misinformation on their platforms. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Zuckerberg the viking-king. MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

There was a moment during Thursday’s lengthy congressional hearing with three Big Tech CEOs that made me perk up. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Florida, was pursuing questions about social-media services tailored for children under 13 when he asked this one to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “Do you have concerns about what has appeared on your platform hosted by YouTube? With regard to your children, in general, do you have concerns, yes or no?”

“Congressman,” Zuckerberg replied, “are you asking me about YouTube?” That was a good thing to check, since YouTube is owned by Google, whose CEO was also testifying. Zuckerberg was briefly flustered, perhaps because he assumed Bilirakis was confused, but he gave an answer anyway: His kids do watch YouTube, but because they’re 3 and 5, he tends to supervise, so there haven’t been any issues.

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It was a cute little nothingburger of an answer in a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on disinformation that dragged on for nearly six hours, appeared to be frustrating for everyone, and featured many, many “yes or no?” questions that Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey tried their best not to answer. The hearing, the first since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to include these leaders, wasn’t a total wash: One exchange nicely illuminated the differences in the views of the three CEOs on reforming the foundational internet protection Section 230. It’s also true that, as my former colleague Will Oremus pointed out, there was some value in seeing Zuckerberg and Pichai weasel out of saying whether their companies shared any responsibility for the Jan. 6 riot. (Dorsey said that Twitter did bear some responsibility, though he added, “You also have to take into consideration a broader ecosystem.”) But for the most part it wasn’t especially more enlightening than past hearings on these issues. Democrats asked why tech companies aren’t doing more about misinformation, tech CEOs said we’re doing various things and here are some large-sounding takedown numbers but you have to understand it’s complicated, and Republicans—of course—alleged anti-conservative censorship. If the idea was to surface more information about how election lies, private groups with bad intentions, and coordinated propaganda on these platforms might have seeded the Jan. 6 riot, sorry: Nothing to learn here.

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Congress has an important oversight duty when it comes to companies whose basic function matters greatly to the health of democracy, but clearly this isn’t working. (When I say “this” I mean House and Senate oversight of misinformation and harassment and so on. The House subcommittee on antitrust issues wrote a blockbuster report on market concentration in the technology industry, and does good work.) So I have an idea: Don’t ask the tech CEOs about why their platforms are such hellscapes. Ask them about each other’s.

No, it doesn’t need to be the whole event. But in Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Dorsey, you actually have three expert witnesses for a hearing about why mendacious, inflammatory, and seditious content was able to spread so ferociously, and why it wasn’t until too late that their companies took serious measures against it. These CEOs built or supervise massive networks whose structures incentivize emotionally manipulative and politically polarized content and allow it to go very viral very quickly. They also are responsible for the policies meant to mitigate any harmful externalities of these systems’ designs. But their main job is to protect their companies and their shareholders, so inevitably they show up and obfuscate. Letting them play defense against the same old questions isn’t useful for anyone. So throw some curveballs. Ask Pichai about Twitter. Ask Dorsey about Facebook. Ask Zuckerberg about YouTube (even more!). I bet we’d learn something.

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There truly are differences in how these companies deal with problems like misinformation and malicious and hateful content. All three banned Donald Trump for inciting a mob after Jan. 6, though it took YouTube the longest. Now Google has said YouTube will restore Trump’s access once the threat of the violence he inspired has fully receded. I wonder whether Dorsey and Zuckerberg think that’s a good idea, just as I’m curious what Pichai and Dorsey make of the Oversight Board that will rule on whether Trump can have his Facebook account back. Two of these companies—Facebook and Google—are world leaders in developing artificial intelligence, which they see as essential to moderating harmful content at a global scale. Let their CEOs share their opinions on their competitors’ progress and implementation. Dorsey, meanwhile, is pushing Twitter to develop an open-source protocol for a new decentralized approach to social media. Mark? Sundar? Tell us what you think.

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There is another benefit to my plan, which is that it would make for great TV. I suppose you could say that the ongoing rivalry between Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook has weighty implications for our standards of privacy in consumer tech and that it’s important for peers at the upper echelons of the industry to hold each other to account, but also: It’s very, very entertaining. I’m all for turning down the temperature in politics, and few actors have fanned the partisan garbage fires like the social networks. A better approach to hearings should lead to better oversight and, where needed, better laws. In the meantime: Please, let the CEOs fight.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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