WASHINGTON – Leaders of the nation’s largest technology firms are expected to tell lawmakers in a series of high-profile hearings Wednesday that politics don’t factor into their content decisions, pushing back on assertions made in recent days by President Donald Trump.
The one company that won’t be making that argument also happens to be at the center of the president’s attention: Google.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee at 9:30 a.m. ET for a hearing focused on the potential for foreign influence on their platforms, but the executives have already been girding for questions about perceived bias leveled by Trump and other Republicans.
“Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules,” Dorsey will tell the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in a separate hearing set for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to prepared testimony.
The remarks were made public a week after Trump, without evidence, accused Google of offering users “rigged” results when his name is plugged into the company’s search engine. A top White House aide later said that the administration is considering regulations for the company.
But the president’s threats apparently have not fazed Google. When senators asked its top leaders to attend, the company instead offered a senior vice president. Lawmakers balked, and committee aides said on Tuesday they did not expect anyone from Google to testify.
Here are five things to watch for in the hearings:
How hard will lawmakers come down on Google for not sending their CEO?
Senators wanted Google chief executive Larry Page to testify, but the company offered instead Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs and chief legal officer. The result? Google will be represented with an empty chair at the witness table. Although senators rejected the substitute, Walker still submitted written testimony. In it, Walker says Google has fulfilled its commitments to be more transparent about election advertising and is improving interference protections around candidates and campaigns.
“Google knows that there is no reasonable regulatory intervention that is likely to affect Google. Google is deeply imbedded in our daily lives and habits,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who has written books on Facebook and Google. “I think the folks who run Google are too arrogant to stoop to answering to the American people.”
Will Trump tweet?
While Facebook, Google and Twitter were crucial tools in Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office, he’s recently attacked social media companies. At a recent campaign rally in Indiana, Trump called out Google, Facebook and Twitter by name.
“We will not let large corporations silence conservative voices,” he said.
His remarks came after he accused Google of ignoring his State of the Union address and said its search engine is “rigged.” He also attacked Twitter and Facebook as unfair but did not offer specifics about his concerns.
Will lawmakers call for more transparency or regulation?
There are a growing number of proposals to regulate big tech making the rounds in Washington, among them a proposal to audit algorithms used by tech companies to determine what content users see, but there’s not much the White House could do without the cooperation of Congress. That’s despite the fact that Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow recently said the administration is “taking a look” at federal regulations for Google.
“It’s an election year, so inevitably you’re going to hear more about regulation,” said Paul A. Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
Ajit Pai, the Trump-backed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said he hopes the hearings will shed light on whether social media companies should be more transparent about their business practices, including how content is managed and how users’ privacy is protected.
“The issues of online transparency, privacy, and free expression raise the question of public oversight,” Pai wrote in a blog posted Tuesday.
How will social media companies respond to charges of anti-conservative bias?
House Republicans are expected to ask Twitter about actions like its treatment of a campaign announcement posted by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is running for the Senate from Tennessee. Blackburn’s online video announcement was blocked in any Twitter advertisements last year because Twitter objected to Blackburn’s reference to having stopped the “sale of baby body parts.” After initially determining that “a small portion of the video used potentially inflammatory language,” Twitter said it reconsidered the ad in the context of the entire message and allowed it to be promoted in her ads.
In his submitted written testimony, Dorsey says he wants to be clear that political ideology is not behind any decisions it makes. Both to “serve the public conversation” as well as “from a simple business perspective,” Dorsey says, Twitter is “incentivized to keep all voices on the platform.”
His testimony notes that #MAGA was the third most tweeted hashtag in 2017. And he shares the results of Twitter’s analysis of a month’s worth of tweets from members of Congress this summer.
Democratic lawmakers sent more tweets and had more followers than Republicans. Still, Dorsey said that after controlling for factors like the number of followers, Twitter found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat was viewed versus a tweet by a Republican.
Will we learn anything new about foreign interference?
The purpose of the Senate hearing, in particular, is to assess how well social media companies are confronting foreign influence on their platforms. Top intelligence officials in the Trump administration have said Russia and other countries are working to sway voters ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Facebook said in July that it had detected a covert campaign to influence the November elections through the use of posts on hot-button social issues, and it deleted hundreds of pages and accounts.
Facebook is expected to lay out the steps it has taken to address the problem, and is just as certain to face tough questions from lawmakers about whether they’ve gone far enough. Part of that effort includes a new “paid for” line that Facebook will require on political advertising.
“The meat will be a quantification of what Facebook is doing about fake sites,” Vaidhyanathan said. “But I’m pretty sure that most of our attention will go right past that and go to the non-issue of political bias.”
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