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For the past two days, representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified before Congress in the hope of stopping the momentum of the spiraling crisis narrative: that their platforms allowed foreign governments to sow political discord and spread disinformation that may have influenced the outcome of a US presidential election. The appearance was billed as a chance for tech’s biggest companies to share information and tell their side of the story.
Instead, the platforms’ lawyers stumbled through the hearings offering few clear explanations for their failure to detect past interference while dodging pointed questions with semantics. In their attempts to cauterize their post-election wounds, the platforms opened up new ones, demonstrating their continued susceptibility to future attacks on US democracy. By sending no-name employees, rather than anyone from the upper echelons of the business — who then dodged tough questions and gave the impression that they are still unprepared for another round of foreign meddling — tech squandered any opportunity at a quick redemption narrative. As such, it’s hard to see Big Tech’s march on Washington as anything other than a spectacular stumble.
Repeatedly throughout their testimony, Facebook, Twitter, and Google somberly recognized the gravity of their post-election situation. “We think this is a huge deal,” Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch assured the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday afternoon during a particularly tense line of questioning. And yet the platforms' chief executives left the defense of their companies to their lawyers. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey was in New York City this week showing off a new cash register. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was at a photo opp in China. Google co-founder Larry Page’s whereabouts were less obvious, but he certainly wasn’t in either the House or Senate testifying.
"You have a huge problem on your hands. ...You created these platforms...and now they’re being misused."
Their absence was glaring — and befuddling given the CEOs’ boundless enthusiasm for self-aggrandizing magazine covers and celebratory keynotes. A congressional hearing is, perhaps the opposite of a Forbes cover, as oil and tobacco industry executives will likely attest, but the the failure of Big Tech’s most famous executives to attend a hearing on a matter of national security may well read to critics as proof of one of the platforms’ biggest vulnerabilities: that Silicon Valley’s leadership is unwilling to take ownership of its missteps. Or perhaps worse: that it isn’t in fact taking the issue seriously.
Sparing their chief executives the prosecutorial onslaught didn’t accomplish much in the optics department. Lawmakers used their stage to repeatedly savage Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s representatives for their inadequate responses. With a vast audience watching, Senators teed up aggressive lines of ‘yes or no’ questioning virtually guaranteed to go viral. “Are you satisfied with your platform's response to the election?” Senator Ron Wyden asked each representative. After a long, uncomfortable silence they all responded in agreement. “No.”
An exasperated Sen. Al Franken reacts to a Facebook representative's answer during Tuesday's testimony.
While such grandstanding is common practice in congressional hearings, its cumulative effect is particularly humbling for Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which looked increasingly less like multi-billion dollar titans of industry and much more like children who’d phoned in a school report.
"We don't have state sponsored manipulation of elections as part of our rules."
“I don’t think you get it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein lectured the companies at one point on Wednesday afternoon. “We are not going away gentlemen. And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won’t do. You have a huge problem on your hands. ...You created these platforms...and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it — or we will.”
When it came time to answer crucial questions, the companies were rarely in a position to provide satisfactory explanations. When asked Tuesday if they had the ability to know each and every one of their advertisers, Facebook deflected with an answer about “authenticity,” implying that the content of foreign posts was less of a problem than the users shielding their identities. Twitter, meanwhile was forced to acknowledge it had a problem identifying shell companies trying to use ads on its platform. On Wednesday when Senator Rubio inquired as to whether foreign interference is a violation of the platform’s terms of service, Twitter’s acting General Counsel Sean Edgett could not argue that it was. "We don't have state sponsored manipulation of elections as part of our rules," he said.
On issues of ad targeting, Facebook evaded substantive questions with semantic dodges. Asked by Senator John Kennedy if the company could target users on either emotional or individual levels, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch repeatedly wriggled out of a direct answer. When Kennedy asked hypothetically if CEO Mark Zuckerberg could use Facebook’s overwhelming data set to gather information on a particular individual for surveillance purposes, Stretch denied it. “The answer is absolutely not,” he said. “We have limitations in place on our ability [to access this information]”
“I’m not asking about your rules,” interrupted Kennedy. “I’m saying you have the ability to do that, don’t you?You can’t put a name to a face to a piece of data? You’re telling me that?”
“We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that, to protect the privacy of our users,” Stretch replied.
“That’s your testimony under oath?” asked Kennedy.
That exchange is, in many ways, a perfect representation of the unprecedented situation in which the platforms currently find themselves. Their massive scale makes it difficult to adequately answer pointed questions — because of the complexity and opacity of the algorithmic systems, and because of their vast audiences, which could never be comprehensively policed by humans alone. The unprecedented scope of companies like Google and Facebook —their size, the personal information they’ve amassed and their centrality in our society — creates a profound disconnect with those that use them. As Sen. John Cornyn noted with exasperation toward the end of Wednesday’s morning hearings, for every complex problem caused by the platforms, there's a clear, simple and wrong answer.
It’s this disconnect that was so prominently on display this week in Washington. You could hear it in the scolding tone of the questions and in the stammering, stunted replies of the general counsels (and acting general counsels, in Twitter’s case), rendering almost every question from lawmakers facile in the eyes of the tech companies and almost every response inadequate in the eyes of the lawmakers.
There’s history, here, too. One former senior Twitter employee described the relationship between DC and Twitter in deeply unflattering terms, dating back to the 2013 Snowden revelations. “Lately, there’s this line between the tech companies and the government that, 'we're not friends, we're enemies,'” this person told BuzzFeed News. “That's lead to this general lack of candor because informal company policy at Twitter has largely been 'when congress calls, say fuck you.'”
Even attempts to find common ground during the hearing seemed tempered with hearty skepticism. “I think you do enormous good. But your power sometimes scares me,” Senator Kennedy told the three companies Tuesday afternoon.
For Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the conflict of enormous good and frightening power are nothing new. This week, Silicon Valley came to DC in the hopes of changing the narrative around that power — namely that it can harness it for the better. But it seems likely to leave it having convinced few of the idea. Worse, it's made it clear that even after years of press releases, corporate slogans, and lobbying, the major tech companies don't know how to talk about their power without making people uneasy.
And those no-show CEOs? It increasingly looks like they’ll eventually have to turn up anyway.