WASHINGTON - Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey gave notice to a Senate Committee on Wednesday (Sept 5) of “tectonic shifts” in the company and the industry as it changes the way it incentivises users.
In the hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr Dorsey, who was live tweeting his opening statement while reading it from a mobile phone, sat alongside Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to answer questions focusing mostly on political interference and manipulation on the giant social media platforms, which administration officials are talking about regulating, and Republicans have accused of liberal bias.
Twitter and Facebook shares fell during the hearings. Twitter ended the day down 6 per cent; Facebook was down 2.33 per cent.
An empty seat had been left for a representative from Google. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, declined to send its chief executive Larry Page. This did not go down well with the Senators.
Last week, US President Donald Trump accused Google of “rigged” search results, tweeting: “Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal?”
In a statement after the Senate hearing, the Justice Department said Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has “convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys-general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”
Later in the day, Mr Dorsey faced a different hearing alone at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, focused on transparency and accountability, where he told lawmakers the company’s number one priority was to ensure elections were not interfered with by foreign entities.
Mr Dorsey countered accusations of political bias, saying: “We analysed tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate, and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Republican, even after our ranking and filtering of tweets has been applied.”
The House hearing was more partisan. Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey accused President Trump and Republicans of peddling “conspiracy theories about Twitter and other social media platforms to whip up their base and fund raise”.
“I fear the Republicans are using this hearing for those purposes instead of addressing the serious issues raised by social media platforms that affect Americans’ everyday lives,” he said.
But Mr Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, told Mr Dorsey: “We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company had discriminated against conservatives.”
Earlier, Mr Dorsey told the Senate committee the company had not anticipated the exponential growth of the “public square” of Twitter.
“We didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences,” he said.
“We acknowledge that now, and are determined to find holistic and fair solutions.”
“We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers. We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough.”
“We need to question the fundamental incentives that are in our product today,” he said.
“We must ask the question: 'What is Twitter incentivising people to do (or not do), and why?' The answers will lead to tectonic shifts in how Twitter, and our industry, operates. Required changes won’t be fast or easy.”
“What we know is we must commit to a rigorous and independently vetted set of metrics to measure the health of public conversation on Twitter,” Mr Dorsey said.
“We must commit to sharing our results publicly to benefit all who serve the public conversation.”
Ms Sandberg admitted Facebook had been too slow to respond to manipulative messaging from Russia during the 2016 election season, but said that it had sharply raised its response and was more proactive now.
Also on Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post: “It’s an arms race, and it will take the combined forces of the US private and public sectors to protect America’s democracy from outside interference.”
The start of the Senate hearing saw the sort of person the social media giants contend with, in the form of Mr Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist with a considerable following, whose radio show has recently been taken off platforms like YouTube and Facebook.
Mr Jones constantly interrupted Senator Marco Rubio as the senator was trying to answer journalists’ questions. At one point, he patted the senator on the shoulder, to which Mr Rubio responded: “Don’t touch me again, man.”