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What Congress Wants From Google, Twitter, and Facebook

Testifying before the Senate, the tech giants finally admitted some culpability in the manipulation of the 2016 presidential election. Now what?

A lawmaker pointing to a tweet including a photo of Aziz Ansari with a sign saying people can vote from home via text message Getty Images

On Tuesday, the first day of the congressional hearings on Russia among Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, the themes were resounding: accountability and confusion. During the first of three hearings this week called to discuss Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election using technology, lawmakers repeatedly announced to the three companies their responsibility to the American public as well as democracy, and marveled at their scope. And then, also, they tried to understand to varying degrees of success exactly how these companies work and what role they played in the election.

While the representatives from the platforms offered few specifics, they all admitted that their roles extend beyond mere platforms, that it is incumbent upon these services not only to act as communication platforms, but to prevent interference in American democracy. It’s the first time the tech trio have acknowledged this responsibility, in the past self-identifying as delivery services acting without culpability for whatever is disseminated on their far-reaching platforms. At the same time, when each was asked if it was “in the content business,” Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, Google director for law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado, and Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett each answered no on behalf of their company. “The vast, vast majority of the content you see on Facebook is user-generated,” said Stretch. “A minuscule percent … less than 1 percent.” Salgado said, “We’re not in the content business,” which Edgett echoed. Within the hour, the three companies agreed, finally, that they are responsible for fighting forces that attempt to mislead the public, with Stretch noting that Facebook has “a responsibility to do all we can to combat these threats, and we’re committed to improving our efforts.” Still, the three also stuck to the adage they’ve come to rely on: that none of them are in the media business.

In a more exact exchange, senators grilled Twitter’s representative on tweets that told users they could vote via text, explaining in no uncertain terms that this was not just misinformation, but also a federal crime. (A poster of Aziz Ansari holding up the vote-by-text scheme that was used in some of the tweets was referenced multiple times.) Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked how many Twitter users acted on that information. And while counsel was unable to answer that question—Twitter doesn’t know how many people who saw the tweet picked up their phone to vote—Edgett did offer up the number of users refuting the false tweet, in what felt like an attempt to assure Twitter’s role as a way to spread positive, correct information, as a kind of self-fact-checker. What went left unanswered during this bout of questioning was how many eyeballs saw the tweets announcing you could vote by text, something that Twitter assuredly knows.

This is perhaps what’s most emblematic of this entire debacle: The government doesn’t entirely understand how the internet—and, more specifically, social media—works. When speaking about serving targeted information, Kennedy asked the companies to explain to him whether someone could just look up a host of information about him on Facebook. Could someone at Facebook just request information about him? There was an awkward, confusing exchange here about how anyone can see what’s on your public profile, which Twitter and Google echoed, and then Kennedy got around to asking in more specific terms if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requested information about a user—something beyond the available profile—could that be handed over? “I’m not asking about your rules,” Kennedy said. “I’m saying that you have the ability to do that.” Stretch replied no.

It wasn’t all frustrating question-and-answer segments. There was something of a dressing down, as you’d expect—largely at the hands of Minnesota Senator Al Franken (and much of it pointed at Facebook). Franken asked Stretch how Facebook could not “connect those two dots?,” referring to political ads bought with Russian money. Stretch responded plainly that the network should have been paying closer attention.

Kennedy also chided the companies, expressing the difficulty of their positions as well as the influence they have. He went on to press Facebook on its relations with advertisers: “You have 5 million advertisers that change every month. ... You don’t have the ability to know who every one of those advertisers is.” Facebook acknowledged that, yes, shell companies could be operating under aliases and using its advertising system without the tech giant’s knowledge. Kennedy also asked about a recent report suggesting that Facebook can target teens based on whether they feel insecure and worthless; Stretch replied that this information was “overstated” in an internal memo and that Facebook isn’t able to group users into demographics in this way. He also noted that the company is using new protocols to prevent this sort of targeting.

On Wednesday, Facebook, Google, and Twitter will face the congressional subcommittee, again focusing on Russian interference. Hopefully, the questions will be more pointed, and answers more forthright. But after Day 1, it feels like sweeping generalizations are taking over, and that there is a collective feeling of being overwhelmed by the scope of this issue.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s hearing, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement that “manipulation of social media sites by terrorist organizations and foreign governments is one of the greatest challenges to American democracy and a significant threat to our national security in the 21st century.” Clearly, both the congressional subcommittee and the companies have realized the scale of the problem, and airing that realization was the focus of the day. But venturing beyond that, into the fine grain of how that manipulation is happening, remains safely locked in the proverbial black boxes of these conglomerates.

In the most relatable moment of the entire hearing, Kennedy said what most of us logging into these various networks feel every day: “Gentlemen, I’m very proud the three companies you’re representing here today are American companies, and I do think you do enormous good. But your power sometimes scares me.”