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Facebook and Twitter execs face a grilling at Senate Intelligence Committee hearing

With midterms just a couple months away, tech companies are under close watch for how they will stop the spread of misinformation and propaganda.
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Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey headline the Senate Intelligence Committee's open hearing on Wednesday starting at 9:30 a.m. ET.

The hearing, titled "Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms," comes with the 2018 U.S. midterms just two months away. Numerous tech companies have already announced the discovery of foreign influence campaigns, including Facebook, which has cracked down on what it called "coordinated inauthentic behavior."

Wednesday's hearing is the biggest for the tech industry since April, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced almost five hours of questions from the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

1607d ago / 4:38 PM UTC

And that's a wrap!

And that's a wrap on the hearing.

Sandberg and Dorsey faced deliberate questions from representatives on a range of key technical, policy and philosophical issues, logging several important answers for the record.

Perhaps the hearing's most important accomplishment was showcasing to the public the growing contrition by the social media companies and the desire to collaborate with other groups as well as their fellow tech companies. And over and over again, they expressed remorse and acknowledged they hadn’t done enough to stop foreign influence operations, and begged for government and third party “tips” to spot more.

But fundamentally the platforms remain committed to their idea of being neutral platforms who do not arbitrate truth, they simply decide whether “information” is more or less visible. When asked to take a stand on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, who have been identified as hostile non-state actors, both Sandberg and Dorsey said the accounts haven't been removed because they don’t violate the companies' policies.

Though American-born and benefiting from U.S. free speech and telecommunications laws, the companies now exist on a global level that can in some ways surpass the reach of the elected representatives from its country of origin.

Dorsey is headed over to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where he will almost inevitably face questions about perceived liberal bias at Twitter. 

Google could face some blowback over its no show. Many senators seemed legitimately angry that the company had not sent a senior executive.

Thanks for joining us!

1607d ago / 3:58 PM UTC

Google looks to be the loser from the Senate hearing

The hearing has had some contentious moments, but in general it feels like Sandberg and Dorsey have been able to provide enough answers to satisfy the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

But the one thing that has frustrated numerous senators is the absence of Google. 

Does that mean anything for Google?

1608d ago / 3:52 PM UTC

Dorsey offers some kind words to journalists

Journalists have a love/hate relationship with Twitter, and it appears Twitter's CEO is well aware.

Dorsey, who recently walked back comments in which he said journalists should monitor the service for misinformation, offered some kinds words to reporters. 

Dorsey said journalists do call out misinformation "with a high degree of velocity" and that "we don't do a great job of giving them the best tools and context to do that work."

1608d ago / 3:46 PM UTC

Sen. Rubio and Alex Jones exchange heated words outside of hearing

Well here's a bizarre scene. Sen. Rubio was speaking with reporters outside of the hearing when Alex Jones approached. 

The two exchanged heated words, with Rubio telling Jones not to touch him after Jones put his hand on Rubio's shoulder. Rubio added that he would not call the police but rather "take care of you myself."

Just another day in D.C.

1608d ago / 2:58 PM UTC

Could Americans really be moving away from Facebook?

Despite its many controversies, Facebook has maintained some sense of invincibility. But maybe it shouldn't.

As Sandberg testifies, there's increasing buzz on social media over this new Pew Research report that found 42 percent of U.S. adults said they have taken a break from the social network in the last year.

Beyond that, a staggering 26 percent said they had deleted the app from their smartphones.

Pew's research was conducted from late May to early June in 2018, which is a time period not long after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. 

That said, Facebook still owns two other popular apps — Instagram and WhatsApp. 

1608d ago / 2:46 PM UTC

Google continues to take its lumps

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also dings Google, wondering aloud if the company's absence is "because they are arrogant."

There's an empty chair with a "Google" placard at the hearing.

1608d ago / 2:44 PM UTC

Tech stocks tumble as Sandberg, Dorsey testify

The tech-heavy Nasdaq stock index is headed towards its worst day for a month as tech leaders testify.

Twitter shares were the hardest hit, losing more than 6 percent. Facebook shares also declined, off 1.6 percent in mid-morning trading. Google's parent company, Alphabet, dropped 2.2 percent. 

Tech companies dragged down the overall Nasdaq, with the index down 1.5 percent, dipping below 8,000. 

1608d ago / 2:36 PM UTC

Sen. Wyden gets a 'yes' on personal privacy as a matter of national security

In one of the more straightforward exchanges, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Or., asks if protecting personal privacy protection is a national security priority. 

"Yes," is the answer from Sandberg and Dorsey. 

The notion of personal digital privacy as a matter of national security would open up some interesting ideas about the government's role in regulating how social media companies handle user data.

1608d ago / 2:31 PM UTC

Warner pushes Sandberg on data collection

Sen. Warner pressed Facebook’s Sandberg to get several answers on the record. For instance, should users get notified what the cash value of their data?

Sandberg didn’t answer directly, saying the company would be willing to work with the committee. Warner asked if there are certain pieces of data that a user should not be able to consent away to Facebook. Sandberg said yes, like in the case of data that would come up during a law enforcement investigation.

Finally, Warner asked, “does Facebook have a moral and legal obligation to take down accounts that incite violence,” citing the genocidal violence in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims, exacerbated by racist hoaxes spread on Facebook and its owned messaging app, WhatsApp.

Sandberg agreed Facebook did have a moral and legal obligation to take down such content, leading Warner to say that if Facebook did it and other companies did not, then that could be the basis for sanctions against those companies.

1608d ago / 2:26 PM UTC

Alex Jones enters Senate Intel hearing room

NBC News correspondent Jo Ling Kent is in the hearing room and has an update on Alex Jones: He's entered the room and is sitting in the audience.

1608d ago / 2:19 PM UTC

Could Twitter label bots? Maybe!

A line of questioning from Sen. Warner has already turned up an interesting notion — that Twitter could label which accounts are bots and which are humans.

Of course, it's not easy. Dorsey noted that bots can be masked, but added that they are looking at a system to give users a better idea of what's behind the avatars. 

"We can label them," Dorsey said. "It's really a question of implementation. We are interested in it, and we are going to do something along those lines."

1608d ago / 2:13 PM UTC

Sandberg and Dorsey offer up opening statements

The social media execs have been sworn in — and the testimony begins.

Both began with their prepared statements. Sandberg expressed contrition for the being both slow to spot and act on foreign actor influence on her company’s platform. She cited several steps the company had taken to combat the problem, from doubling the number of workers in safety and security to 20,000, increased used of machine learning to identify troublesome content, and blocking “millions” of attempts to make inauthentic accounts daily.

On fake news, she said Facebook is “making progress” demoting flagged content, decreasing the reach of misinformation and adding warning labels to inform those who have seen it.

“This is an arms race so we need to be ever more vigilant,” Sandberg said. “Nothing less than the integrity of our democratic process is at stake.”

Dorsey, reading from his phone (probably the Notes iPhone app), read a statement that he declared he was tweeting out as he spoke.

“I’m someone of very few words, and typically pretty shy, and I realize how important it is to speak up now,” Dorsey said.

He positioned Twitter as a “public square” and was regretful that it was “weaponized,” and acknowledged Twitter was “unprepared” for the result. Dorsey said the company was now removing many more accounts for policy violations and “thwarting” over half a million accounts from logging into Twitter daily

“We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago,” Dorsey said. “We acknowledge the real-world negative consequences of what happened, and we take full responsibility to fix it. We can’t do this alone, and that’s why this conversation is so important, and why I’m here.”

1608d ago / 2:05 PM UTC

Alex Jones showed up at the hearing

Infowars founder and noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones showed up at Wednesday's tech hearing. 

Jones was recently kicked off Facebook and given a "time out" on Twitter. Since then, he's spent some of his energy decrying the "censorship" from tech companies — and even looking to the government to step in. 

Jones' bans, which included getting removed from YouTube, have had an impact. The New York Times  found that Jones' audience was roughly cut in half, based on an analysis of data including website visits and video views. 

1608d ago / 1:28 PM UTC

Sen. Mark Warner has plenty to talk about

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has released his opening statement. The most important part is the questions Warner is hoping to pose, which he included below. As you can see, he's not just interested in foreign interference. 

The questions:

  • Don’t your users have a right to know when they are interacting with bots on your platform? 
  • Isn’t there a public interest in ensuring more anonymized data is available to researchers and academics to help identify potential problems and misuse?
  • Why are your terms of service so difficult to find and nearly impossible to read, much less understand?
  • Why shouldn’t we adopt ideas like data portability, data minimization, or first party consent?
  • After witnessing numerous episodes of misuse, what further accountability should there be with respect to the flawed advertising model that you utilize? 
1608d ago / 1:07 PM UTC

Double duty for Dorsey

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey isn't just speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. 

Dorsey will be pulling double duty, heading over to the House Energy and Commerce Committee to discuss how the company's systems work. The hearing is scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. ET. 

"We want to better understand the decisions Twitter makes about content and the company’s process to prevent mistakes and undue bias. The committee takes these issues seriously on behalf of consumers, and expects the same of Twitter,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Or., about the hearing.

Twitter has come under fire from conservatives who believe that the company has been unfairly scuttling the views of conservatives, and act that has become known as "shadowbanning." Dorsey continues to deny any such action, and has also been criticized by moderates and liberals for allowing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to remain on Twitter. Jones was recently banned by Facebook and YouTube. 

Dorsey recently spoke with NBC News' Lester Holt about his decision to put Jones in a "time out" that has since expired.

Double duty for Dorsey

Aug. 16, 201803:06
1608d ago / 1:06 PM UTC

Zuckerberg publishes op-ed in The Washington Post ahead of Sandberg testimony

There's a growing messages from the tech industry — we're all in this together. 

That's the conclusion from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, published in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Tuesday night. 

It takes a while to get there, as Zuckerberg spends almost all of the op-ed recounting the many steps Facebook is taking to prevent foreign manipulation, but the prospect of increased cooperation between tech companies and with the U.S. government has recently emerged as a recurring call from people in the tech industry.

"But companies such as Facebook face sophisticated, well-funded adversaries who are getting smarter over time, too," Zuckerberg wrote. "It’s an arms race, and it will take the combined forces of the U.S. private and public sectors to protect America’s democracy from outside interference."

Facebook was one of many companies that met in late August to discuss election cybersecurity, a meeting that was reportedly called in part to help build relationships between companies.

Facebook is doing its part. The company offered NBC News a look inside its "war room," in which the company is coordinating its real-time responses to nefarious activity.

1608d ago / 1:05 PM UTC

Welcome to the Senate Intel Committee live blog!

Good morning and welcome to the NBC News live blog of Wednesday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing! We're excited to cover what should be one of the more momentous public testimonies in the history of modern technology, and we'll bring you all the background, context and in-the-room anecdotes we can find. 

A quick reminder of why we're here: With the U.S. 2018 midterm elections just about two months away, there's a renewed focus on just what technology and social media companies are doing to stop foreign actors from spreading divisive propaganda and manipulating the political discourse. Facebook, Twitter, Google and Reddit have all announced recent actions against what they found to be foreign influence campaigns, and beyond that there have already been reports of attempts to hack into various political campaigns. 

Who is attending: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are scheduled to testify. The most notable absence is anyone from Google. The Senate Intel Committee had hoped to hear from either Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, or Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. The company had offered to send its chief legal officer, but the committee has balked at that. There reportedly could be an empty seat next to Sandberg and Dorsey.

What's going to happen: Though the title of the hearing centers on foreign influence, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, plans to touch on a wide variety of topics including possibly policy solutions to some of tech's privacy issues.