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Twitter looks for better year in DC after bruising 2017

Twitter looks for better year in DC after bruising 2017
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Twitter hopes to put the controversies of 2017 behind it this year, hoping to reassure lawmakers and fend off potential regulations. 

Twitter faced new scrutiny in 2017 over a wide range of issues, from Russian actors’ manipulation of the platform to affect the 2016 election, the company’s failure to handle the rise of hate speech and complaints from conservatives that the platform treated them unfairly. 

Twitter said that it's working with lawmakers to address their concerns in various areas. 

"Twitter is continuing to work closely with Congressional investigators on their inquiries into the 2016 U.S. presidential elections," a company spokesperson said.

Twitter's D.C. office is in daily contact with lawmakers across Capitol Hill on other issues, according to the Twitter representative.

The social media network’s treatment of Republicans in some high-profile flaps — including Twitter’s decision to prevent Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGOP-affiliated voters outperforming Democrats in key states’ early voting: report Democrats slide in battle for Senate Katy Perry praises Taylor Swift for diving into politics MORE (R-Tenn.) from turning a campaign video into a promoted tweet because of abortion references — agitated conservatives who might otherwise oppose regulation.

The decision earned criticism from other lawmakers, including Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump recounts 2016 feud with Cruz at Houston campaign rally Trump says he’s made up with ‘Beautiful Ted’ Cruz The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump says he is cutting foreign aid over caravan | Lawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince | DNC chair downplays 'blue wave' talk MORE (R-Texas) and Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonFlake: Congress should not continue Kavanaugh investigations GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter Susan Collins becomes top 2020 target for Dems MORE (R-Ark.). Months after the controversy, Republican Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai railed against the company’s treatment of conservatives.

"Now look: I love Twitter, and I use it all the time. But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem," Pai said. "The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate."

But misgivings about Twitter aren’t limited only to conservative lawmakers. Twitter has earned criticism for Democrats like Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism Is there a difference between good and bad online election targeting? Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel MORE (D-Va.) for how it handled revelations of Russian manipulation on its platform.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) railed in December on the company, as well as Google, for not coming through on its commitments to reveal more information about Russian influence.

Twitter is trying to quell the trend of criticism from government officials. The firm has been tight-lipped on its dealings with lawmakers, but experts believe that the social media firm can improve its standing in Washington.

“The first thing they could do is be more transparent and specific about policies that they will apply to political content,” said Mike Horning, a communications professor at Virginia Tech.

Horning believes that the company has already made some strides in the right direction, praising Twitter’s efforts to improve its guidelines for acceptable use, revamping its verified policy and developing better algorithms to detect problematic content. 

”These approaches aren't perfect, but they're always improving,” Horning said.

Craig Varoga, a Democratic political strategist, argues that increasing human oversight of its automated ad platform would help Twitter deal with manipulation of its platform that has gotten it in trouble with lawmakers. 

“I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to eliminate them, but there’s probably a technician who says that they can improve the algorithm to detect, but it certainly seems the tech would be incomplete and there would have to be some human oversight,” he noted.

Twitter has already mended fences with some lawmakers. A source familiar with meetings between the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the company late last year noted that its response to diversity issues of its staff has left some CBC lawmakers slightly more optimistic about the company. 

Twitter still has a long way to go on matters of race with lawmakers, though. One Senior Democratic aide said that Twitter’s meandering and unclear policies regarding hate speech and white supremacy on its platform has frustrated at least some CBC lawmakers. 

The aide noted that Twitter’s response to the committee has been lackluster. 

“It seemed like there wasn’t a sense of urgency to deal with or implement a solution,” the aide said. “When they did announce they would take steps in white nationalists from their platform, that was a small step in the right direction, but it took some time for them to get there. There’s more that they can actually do.”

Ultimately, observers and critics think that Twitter’s best chance and improving over the next year will come from better self-awareness of its own issues and reflecting on what it needs to do to fix them.

“Responsible companies realize that the credibility of their product relies on self-regulation of their products and self-policing,” said Varoga.