Facebook, Twitter face questioning in Congress

Shares of Facebook and Twitter fell as their top executives testified before the US Congress, defending the companies against a failure to combat continuing foreign efforts to influence US politics.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaking during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington on Wednesday.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaking during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington on Wednesday.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Facebook is insisting that it takes election interference seriously, and Twitter is denying its operations are influenced by politics.
Facebook is insisting that it takes election interference seriously, and Twitter is denying its operations are influenced by politics.PHOTO: REUTERS

Both say they are getting better at blocking foreign attempts to influence US politics

WASHINGTON • Top executives from Facebook and Twitter yesterday defended their companies in the United States Congress over what lawmakers see as a failure to combat continuing foreign efforts to influence US politics.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who testified alongside Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, acknowledged to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the company was too slow to respond to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 US election and American society, but insisted it was doing better, Reuters reported.

Mr Dorsey emphasised that Twitter has made significant progress on "tactical solutions" like identifying various forms of manipulation which were intended to artificially amplify information.

"We're now removing over 200 per cent more accounts for violating our policies. We're identifying and challenging 8 to 10 million suspicious accounts every week. And we're thwarting over a half million accounts from logging in to Twitter every day," said Mr Dorsey, though he conceded that "required changes won't be fast or easy".

Facebook, Twitter and other technology firms have been on the defensive for many months over political influence activity on their sites as well as concerns over user privacy. Their executives have travelled to Washington several times to testify in Congress, with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg facing 10 hours of questioning over two days in April.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been looking into Russian efforts to influence US public opinion throughout Mr Donald Trump's presidency, after US intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin had sought to boost his chances of winning the White House in 2016.

Moscow denies involvement, and Mr Trump - backed by some of his fellow Republicans in Congress - has repeatedly dismissed investigations of the issue as a partisan witch hunt or hoax.

Some Republicans have also charged social media companies with bias against Mr Trump and other conservatives.

Mr Dorsey was to follow his Senate testimony with an appearance at an afternoon hearing looking at that issue in the House of Representatives, Reuters reported. He was expected to tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Twitter "does not use political ideology to make any decisions".

Mr Trump faulted Twitter on July 26, without citing any evidence, for limiting the visibility of prominent Republicans through a practice known as shadow banning.

Last week, Mr Trump accused Google's search engine of promoting negative news articles and hiding "fair media" coverage of him, without providing any evidence. He vowed to address the situation but gave no details.

Republicans control majorities in both the Senate and House, but the House's approach to the election issue has been far more partisan than in the Senate.

In the Senate, both the Republican Intelligence Committee chairman, Mr Richard Burr, and Democratic vice-chairman, Mr Mark Warner, said they called yesterday's hearing to press the social media companies to do more.

They also asked Alphabet Inc's Google to send a top executive to testify, but declined its offer to dispatch chief legal officer Kent Walker rather than chief executive Larry Page, saying it wanted a top corporate decision-maker. The chair where Google's representative was to sit at the Senate hearing yesterday was empty.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2018, with the headline 'Facebook, Twitter face questioning in Congress'. Print Edition | Subscribe