Live coverage: Social media execs face grilling on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled top executives from Twitter and Facebook on their efforts to combat foreign influence operations on their platforms in a pair of hearings on Wednesday.  

The events served as a major test for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, marking their first public congressional hearing appearances.

They faced questions on efforts to combat foreign influence operations as the November midterm elections draw closer.

Wednesday morning's Senate panel hearing was part of the Intelligence Committee's broader inquiry into Russian interference in the election, which is running parallel to the federal investigation spearheaded by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioned Dorsey over claims that conservative voices are being suppressed on Twitter.

House Republicans asked 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 Clinton during the 2016 presidential race.

Walden gavels out

5:50 p.m.

After a long stretch of mostly uneventful questioning, Walden gaveled out of the hearing.

Questions during the last hour of the hearing touched on potential biases exhibited by Twitter, as well as the company's handling of instances of harassment, abuses or other violations and its verification process.

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) was the final lawmaker to question Dorsey and pressed him on how the platform verifies users.

"We believe we need a complete reboot of our verification process," Dorsey replied. "It's not serving us, it's not serving the people that we serve well."

The Twitter head deferred from replying immediately to numerous questions posed to him by lawmakers, citing the need to gather or verify information. The company will supply the committee with those answers in the coming days.

- Jacqueline Thomsen

Rep. Duncan uses staff example to raise issue of bias

5:15 p.m.

Rep. John Duncan (R-S.C.) raised the issue of bias during his line of questioning to Dorsey, on the basis of an accidental examination conducted by one of his staffers.

Duncan explained that a member of his staff had set up a new account on her work computer.

He said that despite the staffer being a "pro-life" Republican, almost all of Twitter's automatically suggested accounts for her to follow were left-wing political figures.

He also noted that it was not even entertainers, saying it was strictly political figures.

"Where was Kim Kardashian? Where was Taylor Swift? Where was Ariana Grande?" Duncan wondered.

Dorsey responded that the suggestions are partially based on location and that the left-leaning suggestions might have been the result of the 202 area code she created the account in leaning heavily to the left.

Duncan was not satisfied by this, questioning why D.C. figures like Washington Nationals player Bryce Harper and the D.C. United's team profile didn't show up either.

- Ali Breland

GOP rep: 'I would be ashamed if I were you'

4:00 p.m. 

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) tore into Dorsey over illegal drug sales he says are taking place on Twitter.

McKinley projected images of tweets purportedly offering to sell cocaine that was posted within the past hour.

"I would be ashamed if I were you," the West Virginia Republican said. "When you say this is against your public policy and you've got ways of being able to filter that out and it's still getting on there."

"I'm astounded that that information is still there," he said.

McKinley challenged Dorsey to make sure that the content he exhibited is taken down in the next few hours. 

"I agree with you," Dorsey said. "This is unacceptable and we will act."

- Harper Neidig

Far-right activist interrupts hearing

2:55 p.m.

Far-right internet figure Laura Loomer interrupted the hearing as Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) finished making comments.

Loomer stood up and began yelling, "You are a liar Jack Dorsey," accusing him of having been caught on tape as exhibiting bias against conservatives.

It's unclear what video she was referring to. In a previously published recording though, far-right internet figure James O'Keefe shows a video of a Twitter contract employee describing how the company stifles abusive users.

O'Keefe has cited the video as an example of Twitter's bias against conservatives.

Loomer's disruption was drowned out by lawmakers laughing and by Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) imitating an auctioneer before she was removed by security.

Loomer spoke to Capitol Police officers outside the hearing room before she and some officers briefly left the building. She later reentered but said she did not plan on going back into the hearing.

The far-right figure yelled outside the hearing room that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was "committing perjury" and claimed that site was discriminating against conservatives.

Loomer, a self-proclaimed investigative journalist, has interrupted other events in the past, including a book signing earlier this year by former FBI Director James Comey.

- Jacqueline Thomsen and Ali Breland 

Scalise grills Dorsey on holding employees accountable

2:50 p.m.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) grilled Dorsey about the possibility that his employees are injecting their political opinions into Twitter's algorithms in order to censor conservatives.

Scalise referenced "shadow-banning," which Twitter says was the result of an algorithm mistakenly excluding hundreds of thousands of accounts from being auto-populated in the search bar.

The GOP whip asked what Dorsey was doing to make sure that his employees weren't going after conservatives on their own.

"If somebody wrote an algorithm with a bias against conservatives, I would hope you're trying to find out who those people are and if they're using their own personal viewpoints to discriminate against certain people," Scalise said.

"I would want to know that and I can assure you that the algorithm was not written with that intention," Dorsey responded, adding that the algorithm was changed after they found about the unintended effects.

- Harper Neidig

Dem Rep. Doyle challenges chairman on hearing's premise

2:40 p.m.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) used his time to challenge the premise of the committee holding the hearing.

Doyle called House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) letter to Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asking him to examine the matter a "load of crap."

Doyle lined up a series of softball questions for Dorsey about if he was censoring and shadowbanning conservatives on his platform to which Dorsey replied "no."

"You're really like an equal opportunity shadow banner, right? You didn't just shadow ban four conservative Republicans. you shadowbanned 600,000 people across your entire platform, across the globe, who had people following them that had certain behaviors that caused you to downgrade them. Correct?" he asked, to which Dorsey agreed.

- Ali Breland

Rep. DeGette presses Dorsey on harassment

2:30 p.m.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) pressed Dorsey about how Twitter handles incidents of abuse and harassment on the platform, asking how the company is working to minimize the violations.

DeGette cited an Amnesty International report from earlier this year titled, "Toxic Twitter: A Toxic Place for Women," in her line of questioning.

Dorsey said that Twitter had data on incidents of reports of abuse, harassment and other violations and that it was planning on working on a transparency initiative to make the data more public.

"We don't believe we can create a digital public square for people if they don't feel safe to participate in the first place," Dorsey said.

He added that the company is also looking to create technology to identify and remove instances of abuse, with the ultimate goal of stopping users from being fully responsible for reporting harassment or other violations themselves.

- Jacqueline Thomsen

Dorsey says Twitter is committed to impartiality

2:10 p.m.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey began his testimony by saying that the platform is committed to impartiality, and referenced the recent so-called shadow banning theory that emerged after some Republicans were not immediately shown in the site's search results.

Dorsey said during his prepared opening statement, which he also tweeted out, that the company doesn't "consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions."

"Twitter cannot rightly serve as a public square if it's constructed around the personal opinions of its makers," he said. "We believe a key driver of a thriving public square is the fundamental human right of freedom of opinion and expression."

The CEO said the company had made a mistake by filtering some accounts from appearing at the top of search results, which included some conservative lawmakers and figures, and had corrected the error.

"We believe it's dangerous to ask Twitter to regulate opinions or be the arbiter of truth," Dorsey said. "We'd rather be judged by the impartiality of outcomes and criticized when we fail this principle."

- Jacqueline Thomsen

Walden gavels in House hearing

2:00 p.m.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) gaveled in the House hearing after a brief intermission followed the morning's Senate session.

In an opening statement, Walden alluded to the allegations of anti-conservative bias that have dogged Dorsey and Twitter.

"We recognize the complexity of trying to manage your service, which posts over half a million tweets a day," the Oregon representative said.

"How Twitter manages those circumstances is critically important in an environment where algorithms decide what we see in our home feed, ads and search suggestions," Walden added.

"We hope you can help us better understand how Twitter decides when to suspend a user or ban them from the service, and what you do to ensure that decisions are made without undue bias."

- Harper Neidig

Burr wraps up noting 'we're at a critical inflection point' with social media

12:20 p.m. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told Sandberg and Dorsey to submit obstacles to collaborations between companies in stopping misinformation efforts to see if there was anything the committee could to do to help, as a part of the next steps to continue to curb foreign political influence on social media. 

"I want to thank both of you for appearing today and for your continued efforts to help find a solution to this challenging problem," he said. "This hearing represents the capstone of the fourth piece of the committee's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections."

Burr noted that when the investigation began, he and committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) did not understand how easily foreign government could manipulate American social media companies to influence U.S. politics. 

He also brushed off concerns that interference efforts were a political excuse, noting that influence is often targeted at all sides. 

"Make no mistake, Russia leans neither left nor right. It only seeks to create political turmoil," Burr said.

"We're at a critical inflection point. Will using social media to sow discord become an acceptable tool of statecraft? How many copycats will we see before we take this seriously," he said. "Your companies must be at the forefront of combating those issues."

- Ali Breland 

Sessions convenes meeting on concerns social media companies are 'intentionally stifling' ideas

12:15 p.m. 

The Department of Justice on Wednesday said that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has scheduled a meeting with state attorneys general in September to discuss a "growing concern" that companies may be "intentionally stifling" the free flow of ideas on their platforms.

"We listened to today's Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Foreign Influence Operations' Use of Social Media Platforms closely," Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said in a statement that was issued as the hearing drew to a close early Wednesday afternoon.

"The Attorney General has convened a meeting with a number of state attorneys general this month to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms," O'Malley said.

- Morgan Chalfant

Cotton asks why Facebook, Twitter don't shut down WikiLeaks

12:05 p.m. 

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) grilled Dorsey and Sandberg on why they continue to allow WikiLeaks - the organization that published hacked Democratic emails harvested by Russia leading up to the 2016 presidential election - to operate accounts on their platforms.

Cotton noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then CIA director, described WikiLeaks as a  "nonstate hostile intelligence service" last year.  

Both Sandberg and Dorsey answered that WikiLeaks does not violate either platform's terms of service.

"I'm not going to defend WikiLeaks and I'm not going to defend the actions of any page or actor on our platform," Sanders said. "WikiLeaks has been public information. It is available broadly on other media and as such it doesn't violate our terms of service." 

Dorsey echoed her response, but added, "We are open as always to any law enforcement insight that would indicate a violation of our terms." 

Cotton also asked Dorsey why Twitter chose to cut off U.S. intelligence agencies from a resource allowing them to sift through social media postings on the platform, a decision that came to light in 2016.

Dorsey defended Twitter, saying the practice is consistent with the company's global terms of service and commitment to protecting user data and privacy. 

"We are always open to any legal process that agencies would present us," Dorsey added.

- Morgan Chalfant 

Rubio, Alex Jones have heated exchange in hallway

11:30 a.m.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Infowars founder Alex Jones on Wednesday got in a heated exchange outside hearing.

Jones repeatedly interrupted the senator as he was being interviewed by a number of reporters.

Jones was trying to get the senator to address what he calls the repression of conservative speech on social media platforms. 

"I don't know who you are, man," Rubio said to the conspiracy theorist.

When Jones reached out to touch Rubio's shoulder, the senator warned him not to touch him again.

Jones asked if Rubio would call the police on him.

"You're not gonna get arrested man," Rubio said. "I'll handle it myself."

- Megan Keller

Burr gavels back in after short break

11:03 a.m. 

The Senate Intelligence Committee recessed briefly so witnesses could "stretch their legs," convening again shortly after 11 a.m. to continue questioning.

Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said earlier the members would be limited to seven-minute rounds and that there would only be one round of questioning.

- Morgan Chalfant

Twitter stock down nearly 6 percent

10:55 a.m.

Twitter's stock is down nearly 6 percent since the hearing was gaveled in this morning.

Wall Street doesn't seem to be encouraged by Dorsey's soft-spoken testimony before the committee. Shares were trading just under $33 an hour shortly after the hearing began.

Meanwhile, Facebook's shares spiked after the hearing began before dropping slightly to just below the opening price of $169 per share.

- Harper Neidig

Sandberg: Facebook won't operate in China 

10:52 a.m. 

During a line of questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sandberg said that Facebook would only operate in countries where it doesn't compromise its values. 

"That would apply to China as well," Sandberg added.

Sandberg's comment comes after a massive controversy at Google over its reported plans to enter the Chinese market with its "Dragonfly" project, a censored search engine.

Some employees have said they are furious with the company for compromising the company's values.

Hundreds of Google employees signed a petition calling on the company to drop the project.

- Ali Breland 

Rubio piles on Google 

10:45 a.m. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also lashed out at Google for not sending its top executive to testify. 

"Maybe it's cause they're arrogant," Rubio said.

The Republican senator also suggested Google could be trying to avoid having to respond to media reports about an advocacy group, Campaign for Accountability, claiming that its researchers were able to purchase ads on Google while posing as Russian trolls.

- Morgan Chalfant

Google responds to Warner, Burr attacks

10:34 a.m. 

Asked to respond to attacks from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), Google said it had made one of its top lawyers available to assist the committee.

"Over the last 18 months we've met with dozens of Committee Members and briefed major Congressional Committees numerous times on our work to prevent foreign interference in US elections," a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement to The Hill.

"Our [senior vice president] of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, who reports directly to our CEO and is responsible for our work in this area, will be in Washington, D.C. today, where he will deliver written testimony, brief Members of Congress on our work, and answer any questions they have. We had informed the Senate Intelligence Committee of this in late July and had understood that he would be an appropriate witness for this hearing." 

Google angered lawmakers by refusing to have Larry Page, the CEO of its parent company, Alphabet, testify before the panel. The company submitted a written statement from its general counsel on Tuesday.

- Harper Neidig 

Dorsey reads from smartphone to give opening remarks

10:23 a.m. 

Dorsey, staying true to form, read his opening remarks off his smartphone, earning him stifled laughs from lawmakers on the dais.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) lightheartedly commented on it after his remarks.

The Twitter CEO also tweeted out the entirety of his opening statements.

"I'm someone of few words and typically shy, but I realize the importance of speaking up now," Dorsey said at the beginning of his remarks.

Dorsey acknowledged the gravity of the company's actions.

"If we don't find scalable solutions to the problems we're now seeing, we lose our business," he said.

Dorsey also emphasized not intervening or imposing too tightly on its users as Twitter tries to figure out how to curb manipulation of its platform for political ends.

"When people open our app up every day we ask, 'What are we incentivizing them to do?' Not telling them what to do," he said.

- Ali Breland

Sandberg promises to fight future interference campaigns

10:05 a.m.

In her first appearance before Congress, Sandberg said she was remorseful about Facebook's response to the Russian disinformation campaign that took place on the platform.

"We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act," the Facebook COO said in her opening statement. "That is on us. This interference was completely unacceptable - it violated the values of our company and of the country we love."

Sandberg highlighted the ramped-up security efforts the social network has launched since the 2016 presidential election, promising that Facebook is determined to combat any future interference efforts.

She noted Facebook's priority is to identify and shut down fake accounts and also emphasized the company's efforts to combat fake news and to increase transparency in advertising.

"These steps won't stop everyone who's trying to game the system but they will make it a lot harder," Sandberg said.

- Harper Neidig 

Warner hits Google for not sending top executive 

9:50 a.m. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) used his opening remarks to criticize Google for not sending its top executive to testify before the committee. 

"I'm pleased that both Facebook and Twitter have sent their company's top leadership to address some of these critical public policy challenges today. I look forward to a constructive engagement."

Google had offered up a senior vice president, Kent Walker, to testify, but the committee rejected that offer and elected instead to invite Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet, Google's parent company. Page did not accept the invitation.

"I know our members have a series of difficult questions about structural vulnerabilities on a number of Google's platforms that we will need answered," Warner said. "Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion."

Earlier, committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also said he was "disappointed" in Google's decision not to send its top executive.

Warner went on to say that Twitter and Facebook have "come a long way with respect to recognizing the threat" of foreign influence operations but said a lot of work remains to be done.

"I'm skeptical that, ultimately, you'll be able to truly address this challenge on your own. Congress is going to have to take action here," Warner said.

- Morgan Chalfant

Burr gavels in, pays tribute to McCain

9:45 a.m. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) gaveled in the hearing, kicking off his opening remarks with a brief statement honoring late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was laid to rest on Sunday.

"There can be no denying that the place is a little smaller without him," Burr said. "Arizona's loss is our loss, and our loss is America's loss." 

Moving to the subject of the hearing, Burr expressed ongoing concerns about foreign influence operations, noting that nations beyond Russia appear to be leveraging social media platforms in order to wage influence campaigns and sow discord.

"Unfortunately, what I described as a national security vulnerability and an unacceptable risk back in November remains unaddressed," Burr said. He noted that "positive things" are happening, crediting social media companies for actions they have taken, but asked lawmakers and private sector representatives to have a "candid" conversation about where the responsibility lies to address the problem.

- Morgan Chalfant

Fringe internet figures make appearance

Infowars creator Alex Jones showed up on Capitol Hill on Wednesday for the back-to-back tech hearings in which executives from Facebook and Twitter are testifying.

At the start of the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in the morning, Jones hadn't made his way into the room, but a livestream from his Twitter shows him driving through D.C. on his way to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where the first hearing of the day is taking place.

He held an impromptu press conference outside of the hearing room prior to the hearing starting.  

Far-right activist Jack Posobiec joined him outside of the hearing. 

Chuck Johnson, another alt-right activist who sued Twitter for banning him, was also seated in the front row of the hearing.

- Ali Breland