Silicon Valley Goes to Washington

Melissa Ryan
Nov 5, 2017 · 4 min read

Google Facebook and Twitter sent their lawyers to DC for multiple congressional hearings. Here’s what you need to know.

Actual Russian Ad. Credit to Senator Warner for highlighting.

This week, representatives of Google, Twitter, and Facebook were called before Congress to testify at three different hearings regarding their role in the spread of disinformation and propaganda via their platforms. The House Intelligence Committee, Senate Intelligence Committee, and Senate Judiciary Committee members all questioned the non-CEO representatives for several hours.

More than likely, tech’s goal for these hearings was to make less news than the Congress-critters asking the questions. For the most part, they succeeded; but no one on the Hill seemed happy about this. These hearings won’t be the last we hear from Tech in DC. They left the hearings with a lot of homework and I’m guessing the presence of CEOs will be required at future hearings.

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I followed all three of the hearings. A few things worth noting:

  • Of all three committees, the Senate Intelligence Committee has both the firmest grasp of the problem and understanding that disinformation isn’t a partisan issue. Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner continue to present themselves and their committee as the adults in the room. They’ve been able to avoid the drama of their House counterpart and based on the questions asked, their members seemed to be the most up-to-speed generally. Mark Warner’s background in tech has always struck me as especially helpful and this week was no exception. I especially appreciated him asking whether Facebook cross-checked fake accounts that might have been used in both the U.S. and French elections (Spoiler alert: they hadn’t) Warner closed out the Senate Intelligence Hearing by scolding the tech companies present for not offering more information and disclosure.
  • Twitter, Google, and Facebook’s general stance seemed to beWe get it, you’re angry. We promise to be proactive. Please don’t regulate us!” While they were perfectly willing to admit their shortcomings and bragged about what they’d done since the election, they were for the most part unwilling to commit to much else. They were asked several times if they would support the Honest Ads Act — legislation co-sponsored by Senators McCain, Klobuchar, and Warner — but would commit only to supporting the spirit of the legislation. (If you’re interested in learning more about why tech companies can’t be trusted to self-regulate, check out this piece from Renee DiResta and Tristan Harris.)
  • The House Intelligence Committee released many of the ads with which Russia’s Internet Research Agency targeted American voters and a document containing all of the Twitter handles known to be associated with the same agency. (My best guess, based on this Clint Watts tweet, is that the creators of the Hamilton 68 dashboard used this or a similar list.) Generally, there still seems to be confusion about ads versus organic content and I’m not sure everyone asking questions understood the difference. If you’re curious about your own exposure to Russian propaganda on Facebook, Factual Democracy Project collaborated with a team of organizations and individuals to create a site where you can check for yourself, Facebook Exposed.
  • Representatives Terri Sewell and André Carson pushed the tech companies for their lack of diversity in their workforces, making the point that people of color were often the targets of Russian trolling but not part of the solution in tech. Rep. Carson made the point that content from BlackmattersUS probably should have raised flags as not being part of #BlackLivesMatter but did not, and suggested a more diverse team at Facebook might have caught this.
  • Lawmakers kept making the point that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are American born companies. The tech companies gently pushed back and presented themselves global corporations who aren’t necessarily beholden to American interests. Senator Marco Rubio brought this tension home when he asked if running a foreign influence campaign violated any of their terms of service. Fun fact: apparently it does not!
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I share the Congressional anger at tech companies and I’m relieved there’s broad nonpartisan support for taking tech to task. But realistically, I wonder how much can be done beyond scolding and basic regulations. Tech is only part of the problem. At the end of the day, we still have a president who’s aligned himself with the Frog Squad, a political coalition that continues to embrace all things Russia and Putin. At present, there doesn’t seem to be any nonpartisan support for taking the president to task on these issues.

The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back.

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Melissa Ryan

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Politics + technology. Author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter. Subscribe here: Coffee drinker. Kentucky basketball fan.

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