No, no, you're all wrong. That's not a Kremlin agent. It's someone with 'inauthentic behavior'

Tables did not turn but rotated a little for Facebook, Twitter at senate hearing

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Comment It takes time for society, and the law, to catch up with technological advances. But based on this morning's hearing at the US Senate Intelligence Committee, the law is rapidly catching up with the main purveyors of what we have all come to call "social media."

It's been six years since Facebook went public; five since Twitter did the same. Together they are now worth more than $500bn: a valuation that is nothing sort of amazing considering that they do little more than provide space for people to publish small, mostly uninteresting, snippets of information.

But there are a vast number of people that love to publish their daily musings online in bite-sized chunks – and every one of them is a potential customer for other companies to sell their product or service.

There's no doubt that there is a lot of new and novel technology that has been created to seamlessly connect those users with other users and then with advertisers. And it is the technical roots of that structure that has largely allowed companies like Facebook and Twitter to escape the beady eye of lawmakers and law enforcement. It was all just too… complicated.

Well, no more. This morning was the fourth hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee's deep dive into manipulation of US presidential elections by the Russian government, and it was clear that the uninformed meanderings and malapropisms that are so often a part of congressional hearings into current issues are no more.

Instead, Facebook's second-in-command and Twitter's chief exec were faced with a series of intelligent, informed and often pointed questions from senators who have moved from reading the questions given to them by their staffers to engaging their legislative and lawyerly instincts.

Jibber jabber

Too often, technology companies hide behind nonsense terminology when forced to discuss the real world impact of their products. And in response, lawmakers are content to make broad, vague statements in order not to expose their ignorance.

Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) made it clear from the get-go that everyone had moved beyond that point. "As a Committee, we have learned more about social media over the past 18 months than I suspect most of us ever thought we would have to in a lifetime," he noted, before discarding the previous vague handwaving that had stood in for proper policy discussion up until now.

Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey at a senate hearing

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

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"In the past, we’ve used terms like 'misinformation' and 'divisive content' to describe this activity. Now, as we go into our fourth and final hearing on this subject, I think it’s important that we be precise and candid with our language – because that’s what the significance of this threat demands. We need to be precise about the foreign actors we’re talking about. We need to be precise about the consequences of not acting. And we need to be candid about where responsibility for solving this problem lies."

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey have reportedly been preparing for weeks for this hearing, and they arrived fully prepped to say and do nothing to upset the lawmakers who have made it plain they now grasp their businesses and have come out of that process more determined that new laws are needed.

But old habits die hard and both had their own special fuzzy language that they hoped to repeat so often that it actually sounded normal.

For Sandberg and Facebook that was "inauthentic behavior." Agents of the Russian, or Iranian, or Chinese governments that are openly seeking to exploit Americans' tendency to demonize one another by giving them a careful prod in the right direction are not, in fact, foreign agents, or saboteurs, or rabble-rousers. No, we're told, they are users exhibiting inauthentic behavior.

Authenticity

What made the use of "inauthentic behavior" all the more ludicrous was that Sandberg's performance was the single least authentic thing in the room.

You could tell which arguments she had learned beforehand from a sheet supplied by the same policy team that writes Facebook's privacy settings to sound like one thing while achieving the complete opposite – because she repeated them rote fashion.

And there was Sandberg's team encouraging her to go with her "personal" responses to issues like thousands of Rohingya muslims slaughtered in Myanmar in part thanks to hate speech propagated through Facebook. She was "devastated," we learned. But the switch from concerned mom to corporate exec was palpable and came with an equally sharp shift in language when suddenly there was a "ramping up of our ability to review posts in Burmese."

At times, a senator's question revealed an opening for her to give a well-researched line about how great Facebook was, and how much it cared, and how it helps bring people together.

From automaton spouting corporate nonsense cleared by the legal department, complete with this own dictionary of carefully defined terms, to waxing lyrically about the glory of human connectedness in a second. The truth is that the corporation views those human connections as the fuel that drives the money machine: just keep doing it, people, and we will figure out how to sell it.

You can sense that Facebook doesn't want its users to post foul, hateful and false information about others on its service – but only so far as that it might stop them from getting back on the service and seeing more ads. If only those Rohingya people posted more, taken more pictures, clicked more Likes.




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