Not so much changing their tune as enabling autotune: Facebook, Twitter bigwigs nod and smile to US senators

Google slammed for no-show

Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey at a senate hearing
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey at today's senate hearing

Facebook and Twitter executives faced pointed questions from American lawmakers this morning over what they were doing to prevent foreign agents manipulating their sprawling online estates.

Appearing at a hearing of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey, were congratulated for changes that both social media companies have made in recent months although were left with no doubt more was expected of them.

"What I described as a 'national security vulnerability,' and 'unacceptable risk,' back in November remains unaddressed," noted committee chair Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) in his opening remarks. "That risk and vulnerability was highlighted yet again two weeks ago. Without question, positive things are happening… But clearly, this problem is not going away. I’m not even sure it’s trending in the right direction."

That point was reiterated by ranking member Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who also referenced the recent changes – such as requiring anyone who takes out an online political advert amid the US election cycle to prove they are an American citizen. He also put forward a series of additional proposals for future changes, and explicitly threatened to write new legislation to push them forward.

Among Warner's proposals are that users be informed if they are being contacted by an automated account, that new European GDPR-style privacy rights be introduced in the US giving users far greater control over their data, and that social media companies be required to put a monetary value on the data that they hold on individuals.

Those proposals are strongly opposed by social media companies so it was indicative of just how conciliatory that the giants' executives had decided to be at the hearing that they appeared open to considering them, telling the senators present that they were grateful for the suggestions and would be willing to work on any measures.

Pointed

That message of appreciation and working together was reiterated repeatedly, even as some committee members asked pointed questions over the corporations' actions and failure.

When Facebook's widely publicized failure to address hate speech and misinformation, Myanmar – something that was a contributing factor to the slaughter of thousands of innocent Rohingya people – was raised, Sandberg confessed that she had found the situation "devastating," and promised that Facebook was "ramping up" its ability to review information written in Burmese.

She gave a similar personal response when asked about what Facebook was doing to deal with misinformation, such as accusing shooting victims of being paid-for "crisis actors."

Even when faced with precise and pointed questions from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dorsey and Sandberg went out of their way to agree with him. Yes, they both answered, greater protections and controls over personal data must be a national security priority.

Facebook "really appreciated" Wyden's questions about releasing internal audits about what personal information the company had shared with mobile phone operators – including two based in China – and would get back as soon as possible about making it public.

Asked about micro-targeting – where individuals with specific personal views are directly targeted with divisive ads – Sandberg assured the committee that "discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook."

Dorsey, as CEO of Twitter, promised repeatedly that the biz would work more with the US government and law enforcement to address any issues. And he confessed, repeatedly, that the company had not done enough and would do more to make his service more a "healthy public square."

Twitter would also actively look at how to change its service so it was providing its users with the right "incentives" when they log in. Less of a focus on the number of followers, more on quality of information shared.

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