On Wednesday, current and former executives from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on contentious issues like data transparency, the role of algorithms in online radicalization, and content censorship. And a good chunk of the lawmakers appeared to have thought about these issues for longer than it takes them to get from their offices to the hearing-room dais.
Unlike the early days of social-media hearings, when lawmakers generally lacked a grasp of how the various platforms were designed—remember the infamous “Senator, we run ads”?—Wednesday’s hearing marked another welcome shift in Senators’ understanding of the algorithms and the business models of the most powerful companies on the internet. That was the good news. The bad news was that representatives of tech companies have scaled up their ability to never give a straight answer to a politician’s question.
Notably, Chairman and Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan brought the receipts—he began the “current executives” portion of the hearing with recent examples of “Boogaloo Bois” and other extremists groups’ ability to skirt Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter’s content-moderation practices. The organizations he presented had thousands of views, followers, and impressions related to extremist groups, some of whom potentially played a role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. While the January 6th Select Committee is doing the bulk of investigative work, Peters has previously alleged that platforms played a role in facilitating violence that day.
Peters emphasized that each company knows that engagement is a key metric to keeping people on the platform. He challenged Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, with Mark Zuckerberg’s own words: In 2018, the CEO said, “when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content.”
“That [sensationalist and provocative] content is actually good for your business!” Peters remarked. “Isn’t that inevitable,” Peters added, “that more people will engage with provocative content?”
As usual, the representatives from each company deflected and ducked through each of the questions. At one point, Cox responded to a question about child exploitation online from Ohio Sen. Rob Portman with the shopworn preface, “as a father of two kids…” and went on to offer a vague commitment to tackling the issue, as well as deflecting blame onto an advocacy group.
It’s become evident that tech companies and their representatives are resorting to anything to get out of answering a question in a forthright way. And senators know this. “I’m going to humbly and respectfully ask you not to give me the topline talking points,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat, when challenging Vanessa Pappas, the chief operating officer of TikTok, about the company’s Chinese ownership and its relationship with the Chinese government.
Ossoff also jumped on the opportunity to challenge Cox about the Markup’s report on the Meta Pixel, a company tracker that reportedly siphoned off sensitive health data from hospital websites to Facebook.
For those who haven’t been following Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s years-long saga to get TikTok under oath before Congress … well, the Republican finally got his turn. An enraged Hawley repeatedly berated Pappas for her answers about TikTok’s ties to China and whether Chinese employees of Bytedance, TikTok’s parent company, have access to U.S. users’ data.
It’s a talking point that without a doubt suits Facebook and Google, who finally see some attention being taken off of their companies as TikTok wound up being the main focus of this hearing, with Facebook a close second.
Interestingly, Twitter has been left out of many of these tech hearings until recently (and to be fair, the company’s user base is much, much smaller than its peers’), when it was thrown back into the spotlight by whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that Twitter “chose to mislead” on issues of security.
Senators appeared to miss the opportunity to press Jay Sullivan, Twitter’s product and technology leader, on this on Wednesday. Ossoff spent some time challenging Sullivan on whether Twitter knowingly misled the Federal Trade Commission (which has a 2011 consent decree with the company governing Twitter’s use of user information). Sullivan, clearly flustered and likely having prepared little on this issue given Zatko’s testimony occurred only a day before, referred the committee only to the company’s statement on the matter.
If ever there was a quote that summarized this hearing, it was the ol’ “Senator, I’m happy to follow up.” Most frustrating for Peters was the question he apparently asked each witness just days before on a prep call, giving them the chance to prepare a figure and knowing what the standard-issue answer would be if he asked there and then. Peters asked for the number of full-time employees that worked at each company on “trust and safety.” Each executive, who had time to prepare their answer to this question in advance, did not have a concrete number to offer.
Some probably ask what the point of these hearings is if executives are just going to dodge everything. The scope of these hearings varies, and sometimes members allow their questions to stray from the central purpose. Reuters noted that this was the 31st tech hearing in the past five years, and no major legislation has been passed to address privacy, antitrust issues, children’s harms online, or to strengthen federal regulatory agencies that oversee social-media firms.
What is clear is that lawmakers aren’t buying the obfuscation anymore. Getting these companies to answer questions on the record is a play for the long run. As Hawley noted, Cox’s testimony will benefit lawsuits in his home state of Missouri against Facebook or perhaps a suit in the Delaware Chancery Court against Facebook which, among other things, alleges that Chris Cox had knowledge of Facebook’s misrepresented growth numbers.
While few new revelations were made about these companies from this hearing, most lawmakers (except maybe Sen. Ron Johnson, who yelled at everyone about the censorship of his horse-medicine tweets) demonstrated a smart and savvy understanding of these companies and their intricate business models—something that wasn’t true when the industry came under scrutiny in the aftermath of the disinformation-strewn 2016 presidential election and, especially, about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. That’s not nothing. Legislators pushed back when the companies’ representatives gave answers that were at odds with basic facts, such as TikTok’s parent company being based in China, and were able to speak fluently about more complex issues, like what data researchers and academics should have access to be able to study these platforms properly.
It’s true that so far, legislation regulating Big Tech in some way is yet to go anywhere. The Antitrust Subcommittee in the House produced a blockbuster report on competition in the industry, but the bills to come from that effort are reportedly being held up by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose daughters work for Amazon and Facebook. As for issues like privacy, platform manipulation, and safety, there is bipartisan support on the Hill for something to happen, but it’s unclear what. (For one thing, many Republicans who pay attention to these issues fixate on the purported anti-conservative bias of the major tech companies.) But fact-finding and forcing accountability are important too. Clearly, U.S. lawmakers of all stripes love dragging tech executives into the spotlight to berate them. It’s encouraging that they finally now seem to know what they’re talking about.