Social media execs prepare for showdown

Social media execs prepare for showdown
© Greg Nash

Top executives from Facebook and Twitter are expected to face a grilling from Capitol Hill lawmakers in two separate hearings on Wednesday covering alleged anti-conservative bias and foreign governments manipulating social media platforms to influence U.S. politics.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg are set to face the biggest political tests of their careers as they face lawmakers for the first time in a public congressional hearing.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are likely to come at Dorsey with knives out over claims that conservatives are being suppressed on Twitter.

At the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will demand answers on how Facebook and Twitter are making their platforms safer from foreign interference as the November midterm elections approach.

The stakes will be particularly high for Dorsey, who will testify alone at the House Energy and Commerce hearing on alleged anti-conservative bias following morning testimony alongside Sandberg on the Senate side of the Capitol. Without any tech allies by his side, Dorsey runs the risk of becoming a punching bag for House GOP lawmakers with a long list of grievances against Silicon Valley in general.

House Republicans plan on asking about Twitter’s past snafus, which they believe indicate a clear pattern of anti-conservative bias, such as not displaying some conservatives in the platform’s drop-down search results and Twitter downranking a hashtag disparaging Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2016 pollsters erred by not weighing education on state level, says political analyst Could President Trump's talk of a 'red wave' cause his supporters to stay home in midterms? Dem group targets Trump in M voter registration campaign: report MORE during the 2016 presidential campaign.

GOP members of the House panel, led by Chairman Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul Walden13 states accepted Sessions invitation to meeting on social media bias: report House GOP blocks Trump-supported drug pricing provision from spending bill GOP turns its fire on Google MORE (R-Ore.), also want to highlight high-profile anecdotes that suggest Twitter temporarily silences more Republicans than Democrats, rather than focusing on any data that might support accusations of systematic bias against conservatives.

“The bottom line is there are more censorship errors with high-profile Republicans to point to than with anyone on the left,” a congressional staffer told The Hill. “Twitter has chalked that up to mistakes. Whether bias is intentional or not, even a well-intentioned algorithm can have consequences.”

The staffer added that one of Walden’s chief goals for the hearing is to get Dorsey to pull back the hood on Twitter’s algorithms and get more transparency from the company.

Klon Kitchen, a cyber policy analyst with the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, said satisfying the committee’s desire for transparency is Dorsey’s best route to a less-divisive hearing.

“They’re going to be well-served if they don’t just deny bias but show actions they take to mitigate bias,” he said. “If they can show with real numbers and metrics that so-called conservative bias isn’t existent, that will go a long way.”

Kitchen said it’s imperative that Dorsey address anything he believes is a misconception in a humble, respectful manner.

“He can’t be evasive or condescending,” Kitchen said.

Dorsey appears ready to strike a conciliatory tone, according to his prepared remarks for Wednesday afternoon.

“Despite the success we are seeing with our use of algorithms to combat abuse, manipulation, and bad faith actors, we recognize that even a model created without deliberate bias may nevertheless result in biased outcomes,” Dorsey’s statement reads. “Bias can happen inadvertently due to many factors, such as the quality of the data used to train our models.”

The pressure he faces on Wednesday is compounded by frustrations expressed by Republicans in recent weeks.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthy13 states accepted Sessions invitation to meeting on social media bias: report This week: Kavanaugh nomination thrown into further chaos How the Trump tax law passed: Breaking the gridlock  MORE (R-Calif.), who pushed for the Dorsey hearing, have both ripped into tech titans recently, accusing them of bias against conservatives.

“I think Google and Facebook and Twitter, I think they treat conservatives and Republicans very unfairly,” Trump told reporters last week.

Dorsey will also have to square off with Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh, accuser say they’re prepared to testify The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly MORE (R-Tenn.), a Senate candidate who will be eager to challenge the company’s CEO in a public setting.

Blackburn has been a vocal critic of Twitter ever since the company temporarily suspended one of her campaign videos from being promoted as an ad because it mentioned abortion.

Dorsey may get some support from Democrats, though. At the House Judiciary Committee’s past two hearings on anti-conservative bias, Democrats questioned the premise of the hearing and tried to shift the conversation toward Russia’s election meddling efforts.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee could implement a similar tactic on Wednesday.

During the Senate Intelligence hearing, lawmakers aren’t expected to come at Dorsey and Sandberg with the same ire, but they’re unlikely to let the companies off easy.

Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrHillicon Valley: Rosenstein drama dominates the day | Biz, regulators focus on 5G revolution | New questions over Trump cyber strategy Key House Dem's objections stall intel bill as deadline looms Trump assures storm victims in Carolinas: 'We will be there 100 percent' MORE (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerKey House Dem's objections stall intel bill as deadline looms Russia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless MORE (D-Va.) have welcomed recent actions from Twitter and Facebook to boot foreign misinformation campaigns from their platforms, but Burr said in a recent statement that “there is still much that needs to be done to prevent and counter foreign interference on social media.”

Sandberg plans to make known Facebook’s efforts on that front.

“This is an arms race, and that means we need to be ever more vigilant,” she will say in her prepared remarks, provided to The Hill. “As Chairman Burr has noted, ‘Nothing less than the integrity of our democratic institutions, processes and ideals is at stake.’ We agree, and we are determined to meet this challenge.”

Even though Google won’t have a representative at Wednesday’s hearing, the company nevertheless will likely be lambasted by Senate Intelligence members irritated that one of its top executives won’t be present.

The company offered up its vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, but the committee wanted Alphabet CEO Larry Page to testify.

Walker still submitted testimony to the committee about actions Google is taking on foreign actors trying to manipulate its platform.