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Twitter, Facebook Admit Mistakes In Congressional Hearing


Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appeared before Congress today, along with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to address concerns about the use of the platforms by foreign governments seeking to affect American elections. In a wide-ranging opening statement prepared for the hearing, Dorsey testified that in a ten-week period leading up to and after the election of 2016, the company identified more than 50,000 accounts affiliated with Russia tweeting about the election.

“Of all election related Tweets that occurred on Twitter during that period, these malicious accounts constituted approximately one percent, totaling 2,12 million tweets,” he said in the statement. This means that Russia alone, not the only foreign actor engaged in these activities was responsible for one out of every one hundred election related Tweets on the platform.

Sandberg acknowledged that Facebook was also used by malicious foreign actors and was “too slow to spot this, and too slow to act.” She testified that Facebook is blocking millions of attempts to create fake accounts every day. In addition Facebook is working on an authenticity requirement for large-scale pages. In recent weeks the company has shut down malicious pages in Iran, and Myanmar, the latter mostly operating as fake news organizations.

Under questioning, both Dorsey and Sandberg testified that social media companies are working together to identify and share information about bad foreign actors, but that much work is left to be done. Dorsey suggested that Twitter may introduce a new policy that would label identified automated or bot accounts.

Sandberg addressed coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook (from groups that create false accounts), saying these accounts can be difficult to find, but once discovered are easily shut down. According to Dorsey, Twitter cannot always determine where an account is located, which makes their attempts to tamp down on foreign interference difficult. Twitter is using machine learning to find patterns of behavior that can point to a fake profile.

Both Dorsey and Sandberg confirmed that foreign actors have gamed their systems to amplify false information, and said they are working to fight it. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio turned that question on its head, asking what these companies would do if a foreign government asked them to shut down accounts that are truthful or pro-democratic. Dorsey defended Twitter’s decision to shut down dissenting voices in countries such as Turkey, including NBA star Enes Kanter, arguing the company wants free speech everywhere, but they will need some bridges to get there.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins brought up a fake Russian account purported to be controlled by the Tennessee GOP with over 140,000 followers that Twitter recently shut down. She asked if Twitter did anything to inform those followers that they had been duped. Dorsey said Twitter has not done enough. Sandberg testified that Facebook does inform some users if they have interacted with foreign fake pages.

Collins herself learned that she had been a target of Russian accounts from a Clemson University study and wanted to know why Twitter had not informed her. Dorsey said that was “unacceptable.” Collins asked both to be more forthcoming with data for academic studies.

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris pressed Sandberg on whether Facebook has a perverse incentive to promote false or controversial material, since those posts create more engagement and engagement leads to profits. Sandberg rejected that notion, stressing that hate speech is not allowed on the platform.

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich then asked Sandberg if Facebook could shut down the account of an authentic user who makes a false claim. Sandberg said Facebook uses third party actors in those cases to decide if the claim is false, and then they label it as such and drastically limit its distribution. Facebook itself, she said, does not want to be the arbiter of truth.

Under questioning from Republican Sen. Roy Blunt about Twitter’s incentive structure for users, Dorsey testified that originally Twitter made users’ follower counts obvious and prominent, as an incentive to seek more and appear more important. Twitter is now rethinking that, as well looking into the retweet and like features below Tweets.

Independent Sen. Angus King focused his questioning on the consumer’s responsibility to be more discriminating in using the platform and what the companies can do to educate their users. Sandberg again cited their use of third party fact checkers. Dorsey admitted that Twitter has done quite poorly in this regard. He did cite that journalists on Twitter work to inform users of fake accounts and information at high velocity, something King referred to as self-healing.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton wanted to know from both executives why neither platform has taken down accounts associated with Wikileaks and Julian Assange, given that the United States considers it to be a hostile intelligence agency. Sandberg and Dorsey said that they have found no violation of their terms of service by Wikileaks.

Throughout the hearing Sandberg and Dorsey expressed a desire to continue working with the government and law enforcement to combat the foreign interference that is ongoing. Both were lauded for appearing. In fact, the most anger from the senators was reserved for Google, which was represented at the hearing by an empty chair.