Facebook and Twitter are remorseful

In front of two committees of the US Congress, Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey explain how they act against foreign manipulation and hate speech on their platforms. It becomes clear how little the companies have against fake accounts in their hands.

How foreign actors, hate speech and fake news harm American politics is a concern for Congress. On Wednesday, it was the subject of two hearings on Capitol Hill; It was already the fourth in the Senate intelligence committee to influence Russia’s presidential election in 2016. However, managers Sheryl Sandberg, responsible for day-to-day business at Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, founder and CEO of Twitter, had a premiere. The fact that the companies sent their highest-ranking employees and not lawyers to Washington shows how much is at stake for them. The sword of Damocles is still hovering above them. Just Wednesday , Justice Minister Jeff Sessions also announced to check whether technology companies deliberately manipulated free public discourse.

Twitter: “Did not do enough”

Sandberg and Dorsey made an honest effort to demonstrate how seriously they take the problems. What different approaches the two companies pursue, was reflected in the appearance of the two managers: Sandberg, in a dark blue costume, had rehearsed every answer; it fit in with their reputation for preparing extensively for public appearances with public relations professionals. Dorsey, in a bad-fitting shirt and no tie, read the in-person statement from his smartphone and kept referring to his family history. His answers often seemed more improvised, but also more authentic.

Sandberg was able to shine with a series of measures that Facebook has taken since 2016: The social network now employs around 20,000 people who seek to track down hate speech and false accounts. Obvious fake news adds a warning to the platform, and Facebook works with scientists and law enforcement agencies. Customers who want to run ads in the US market now need to go through an authentication process to make sure that they are not foreign players.

Dorsey had little to show. Unlike Facebook, Twitter does not employ its own staff to search for fake news, but relies on clues from other users and its algorithms, which teaches them to detect nonauthentic patterns of behavior. “We have not done enough yet,” the CEO admitted several times. Also, the fact that Twitter does not inform users when they are sitting on a fake account is “unacceptable.”

A thoughtful-looking Dorsey said he is fundamentally questioning some of Twitter’s ways of functioning – wondering if the platform will create false incentives by showing the number of followers so prominently. This gives the impression that a user with a great following also contributes something of value to the discourse.

The hearings also revealed what issues the platforms are still not getting to grips with: Bots who make a special effort to mimic human behaviors are hard to spot on Twitter, Dorsey said. Also, it is difficult to verify in which country a user is actually located; An incorrect IP address is easily obtained. “Identifying non-authentic behavior is a big challenge,” Sandberg admitted. Especially well-falsified videos, so-called “deep fakes”, are hard to falsify.

It also showed how narrow the platforms are when they want to ban or label false information while protecting freedom of speech – especially if the president tweets falsehoods himself, a Democrat MP said. Dorsey also pointed out that such markings incorrectly implied that all other accounts and contributions were trustworthy.

Prominent Absent

The senators did not give a good hair to the absent third party: The Google founder Larry Page had rejected the congress invitation; Perhaps the company did not want to give the impression that their problems were the same as those of Facebook and Twitter. In particular, Google’s decision to end the collaboration with the Pentagon , while at the same time developing a new search engine for the Chinese government , met with criticism.