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What to Expect from Wednesday’s Senate Intelligence Hearing
Executives from some of the largest tech companies will travel from the valley to the hill to testify Wednesday September 5 in Washington in front of the House Senate Intelligence Committee in an ongoing discussion on foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms.
What started as a discussion about social media’s role in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election has evolved into a larger discussion of the power of social media, the ability of foreign actors (beyond Russia) to manipulate it, and who is to be held accountable. The fight against disinformation and hate speech will be an overarching topic of discussion.
New Knowledge’s Renee DiResta testified before the committee in August, along with other social media, disinformation, and technology experts to further discuss the issue of election disinformation and express the concern that foreign actors are showing no signs of slowing efforts to spread misinformation.
In the few months following Facebook’s initial reveal that Russian actors were behind the 2016 platform abuse and election meddling, Facebook, along with Twitter and Google, among others – have discovered additional foreign, coordinated misinformation campaigns. In the last three months Facebook has actively removed coordinated accounts pushing propaganda. Most recently including the removal of 652 accounts connected to Iran and Russia. Proving that the problem of disinformation extends beyond 2016 and is still going on in new capacities today.
As these tech giants take to the stand, here’s who you can expect to hear from and what to expect will be covered throughout the duration of the hearing.
Who to expect
In the midst of the controversy of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, reports of platform abuse and coordinated misinformation campaigns, lie social media companies Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And that’s who will be testifying Wednesday.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, and Larry Page CEO of Alphabet(parent company of Google) will sit before the committee and dive deeper into the problem of disinformation and foreign influence operations’ use of social media.
It will be the first of two congressional appearances of the day for Dorsey, who’s also confirmed to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that same afternoon on Twitter’s algorithms and content moderation.
What to expect
Representatives will be given time to provide their opening statement and then will take questions from committee members. There is no set agenda of topics to be covered, but anticipate a few key themes to be addressed throughout the hearing.
Addressing Mass Consolidation of Audience
Russia was able to create false narratives, fake accounts, and contrive social consensus around a specific narrative, because of the ease of access to social platforms today. The burning question however is, how did social media companies allow this to happen and why were they unable to detect it?
To address this, committee members will likely dive into the processes that each company has in place for account removal, and what requiring these platforms to take down inauthentic accounts would look like. There’s also the question of whether social companies should put in place a process that confirms identities by requiring an ID/true name policy, that would keep out false accounts.
Within the conversation surrounding audience, expect the topic of antitrust to make an appearance. There’s a growing concern among lawmakers that companies like Facebook have gotten too big and have too much control over the market and consumers, and as a result can be a threat to democracy. This begs the question if there is a need for antitrust enforcement.
The Power of Gameable Algorithms
There is much to be discussed surrounding social media algorithms. It’s algorithms that have the ability to control how a user moves through a site, the content they see, and the search results that come up. While users are spending time on social sites, the algorithms allow for data collection, meaning that the longer a user spends on the site they more the site knows about you.
In the 2016 election Russian social media bots were able to thrive off of algorithms and get their narratives and content in front of mass amounts of people. They were able to leverage the algorithms to push users towards their message. And as a result social companies’ algorithms were driving users towards election propaganda. Senators will likely focus in on the use of bots in relation to social companies algorithms.
There will also likely be talk of algorithmic auditing. This would provide the ability to see how fair social media platforms algorithms are by opening up their technology to be evaluated by a third party. Social media companies, however, have be reluctant to open up their algorithms as it could reveal the scale of data they are collecting and ultimately would shed light on the amount of digital power they possess.
Ability to Target Users
Another topic likely to be addressed and honed in on is the capacity that social media platforms have to target people. Today Facebook, Twitter, and Google offer targeting capabilities within their platform for advertisers to help get their messages and products in front of their desired audiences. However, these targeting capabilities can be abused.
Surrounding the theme of targeting, is the sub-theme of regulation within targeting. There are several bills, and policy discussions focused on regulating targeting and data collection, and some of the following are likely to be addressed throughout the hearing. Including:
Honest Ads Act -The Honest Ads Act is a bill in the United States Senate legislative body to promote regulation of online advertising by companies such as Facebook and Google. The goal of it is bringing transparency to targeted advertising.
US GDPR - In May 2018 the EU put into place a General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, in place. The purpose of this regulation is to create a set of rules that give citizens more control over their personal data. With the EU putting this into place, it is sure to be a topic of discussion if it is within the best interest of the US to do the same to protect the data of individuals from future manipulation.
Along with the topics above, you can also expect the following to be addressed in some capacity throughout the hearing.
Reformation of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
Media literacy initiative - how should we be better educating the public on media?
Fiduciary responsibilities - who should be held accountable for damages?
Platform oversight via the Federal Trade Commission
Senator Warner’s policy proposals to regulate big tech
Obviously the big question from lawmakers and tech companies is that could the result of these hearings be regulation of big tech companies. It’s clear that social media companies need to be held accountable for the processes they have in place and work towards optimizing these processes to protect the information ecosystem and actively fight disinformation.
If anything, the collective hearings of Zuckerberg, disinformation experts, and tech companies have shed light on the problem of information warfare taking place online and within social media networks. It’s important that moving forward that lawmakers and tech companies begin actively address the disinformation problem and leverage tools and processes to proactively fight disinformation and protect public discourse.
Tomorrow’s hearing begins at 9:30AM/EST. You can watch here.