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Social media execs address US lawmakers weighing regulatory options for tech

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Social media execs address US lawmakers weighing regulatory options for tech

Social media executives testifying on Capitol Hill on Sept. 5 agreed that closer industry collaboration is necessary to combat the growing problem of misinformation campaigns on their platforms.

Facebook Inc. COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company would work with Congress to reach "the right regulation" to increase transparency when problematic information was identified, as Senate lawmakers seemed to grapple with what type of regulation that might be.

During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sandberg and Twitter Inc. CEO Jack Dorsey both acknowledged that their companies did not do enough to prevent foreign-backed misinformation campaigns on their platforms during the 2016 U.S. election season.

SNL Image

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
prepare to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

"We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act," Sandberg said in prepared remarks. "This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love."

Since the election, Facebook has more than doubled the number of security reviewers to over 20,000, and has developed more advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities to identify and eliminate abuse, Sandberg said.

Similarly, Dorsey said that Twitter was "unprepared and ill-equipped" to handle the vast amounts of misinformation that proliferated on the site. He said Twitter has launched various policy and product changes, such as forming an analytical team to terminate fake accounts and requiring political candidates to verify themselves ahead of midterm elections in November.

Twitter, Facebook and Google LLC in August removed hundreds of accounts with links to Iran and Russia that the companies said had engaged in coordinated efforts to spread disinformation. Twitter at the time said it had worked with "industry peers" to address the problematic accounts.

Google was represented by an empty seat at the Sept. 5 hearing. The committee had requested Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google CEO Sundar Pichai to testify, but both reportedly declined. Google offered to send Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs, but Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., refused.

A handful of senators scolded the Alphabet executives for refusing to testify, with the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, saying he was "deeply disappointed" the company was not present to answer "difficult questions" about its business practices.

Warner told the Facebook and Twitter executives that he was "skeptical that ultimately you'll be able to address this problem on your own," adding that Congress "is going to have to act."

The senator outlined a few proposals from his draft policy paper released in July, including requiring social media companies to notify users when they have interacted with fake accounts and making their terms of service easier to comprehend.

"The size and reach of your platforms demand that we as policymakers do our job to ensure proper oversight, transparency and protection," Warner said.

Dorsey agreed it would be a good idea to notify Twitter users when they have interacted with bots on the site, but said it can be tricky to identify all fake accounts due to their advanced automation techniques.

Sandberg said Facebook is willing to work with lawmakers on policy proposals to increase transparency. "It's not a question of whether regulation but the right regulation," she said.

Other senators offered more of a middle-of-the-road approach, suggesting the companies develop stronger partnerships to eliminate malicious activity.

"I would encourage both of you to work more closely with academia, with our government," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Both executives agreed that tighter collaboration would be beneficial, with Dorsey saying, "This is not something we want to compete on."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., questioned Sandberg and Dorsey about whether their companies are truly committed to adhering to a core set of values on a global scale, pointing to recent demands by Turkey and Pakistan for Facebook and Twitter to censor content deemed offensive.

"We would only operate in a country when we can do so in keeping with our values," Sandberg replied.

Facebook and Twitter both saw their shares tumble after the hearing concluded. Facebook's shares closed Sept. 5 trading at $167.18, down 2.33%, and Twitter's stock ended the session down 6.06%, at $32.73 per share.

Shortly after the Sept. 5 morning hearing, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman told The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. attorney general would be meeting with his state counterparts to discuss whether social media companies "may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms." Dorsey testified before a House committee on that topic later in the day, acknowledging that his company had issues to address but denying allegations of bias.