Warner on Social Media Giants: Congress Needs to Take Action

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday (Sept. 5) that social media platforms have come a long way in addressing bad actors, but not far enough, and said that given his skepticism that they could "truly" address the challenge on their own, "Congress is going to have to take action here."

That came at a hearing, Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms. Warner was not pleased with Google's decision not to send its top execs to the hearing. "I’m deeply disappointed that Google–one of the most influential digital platforms in the world–chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee," said Warner in his opening statement.

In attendance were Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder and CEO.

Warner laid down the new law for the West--at least the Silicon Valley West: "The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end, he said, though he added: "Where we go from here is an open question."

He suggested the committee still needed to hear from those Google top execs. 

"I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google’s platforms that we will need answered," Warner said. "From Google Search, which continues to have problems surfacing absurd conspiracies, to YouTube, where Russian-backed disinformation agents promoted hundreds of divisive videos, to Gmail, where state-sponsored operatives attempt countless hacking attempts, Google has an immense responsibility in this space. Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion."

Citing the 2016 election, Warner said that "with the benefit of hindsight," it was "obvious" that "serious mistakes were made by both Facebook and Twitter." He said "You, like the U.S. government, were caught flat-footed by the brazen attacks on our election," he told Twitter's Dorsey. "Even after the election, you were reluctant to admit there was a problem."

Business as usual is not good enough, said Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who also said he was disappointed that Google had not sent the "right level" of executive to what he said he thought would be a productive hearing.

Burr talked about collaboration rather than legislation. "There are no unsolveable problems, there is only the will to do what needs to be done, or its absence."

Facebook's Sandberg conceded that Facebook was too slow to spot and act on the bad actors abusing its basically pro-social platform.She said election interference is unacceptable and Facebook was determined to do everything it could to stop it. But she also suggested America has always suffered attacks from well-funded adversaries trying to interfere with our democracy."Security is never a finished job," she said. "This is an arms race, and that means we need to be ever more vigilant," she said. "Nothing less than the integrity of democratic institutions is at stake," she added.

Google took a number of hits in absentia.Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was particularly pointed in his criticism. He said Google was probably not there because it would not want to answer questions about its relationship with some foreign elements.While commending Sandberg and Dorsey for showing up, he said he wished he could say the same about Google. He said perhaps Google did not send a senior executive because they had "taken such actions as terminating cooperation with the American military on programs like AI," while "at the same time continuing to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party on artificial intelligence or Wauwei and other Chinese telecom companies that are effectively arms of the Chinese Communist Party." He also cited "credible reports" that Google was developing a search engine that would meet China's censorship standards. Cotton said Twitter and Facebook should wear it as a badge of honor the fact that they had both been barred from China.

Google signaled it sent an exec it thought would be appropriate, though no Google witness was seated or sworn in or questioned. "Over the last 18 months we’ve met with dozens of Committee Members and briefed major Congressional Committees numerous times on our work to prevent foreign interference in US elections," said a Google spokesperson in an e-mail. "Our SVP of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, who reports directly to our CEO and is responsible for our work in this area, will be in Washington today [Sept. 5], where he will deliver written testimony, brief Members of Congress on our work, and answer any questions they have. We had informed the Senate Intelligence Committee of this in late July and had understood that he would be an appropriate witness for this hearing."

"From the testimony, it is clear that companies like Facebook and Twitter have taken important steps to detect illegitimate users, identify fake news, and increase ad transparency," Information Technology and Innovation Foundation VP Daniel Castro said following the hearing. "While these companies still have much more work ahead of them, it is premature to start calling for new regulations. For example, calls to require social media platforms to assign specific labels to automated bots or false information are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, because correctly distinguishing between humans and bots and true versus false information is an exceedingly complex challenge. Congress may prefer that the private sector solve this problem overnight, but that is unlikely to occur."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.