Lawmakers vent frustration in first hearing with tech CEOs since Capitol riot
The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday faced a congressional grilling over their platforms’ roles in the organization of January’s Capitol insurrection, but managed to give very few direct answers.
Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey dodged and deflected a broad range of questions over the course of the five-and-a-half hour long hearing before two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees ostensibly focused on misinformation that ended up veering away from that topic for long segments.
The hearing was the first featuring the executives after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, which was largely organized on social media.
Near the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) asked the CEOs whether they felt some responsibility for the attack after misinformation about the results of the presidential election and the #StopTheSteal movement proliferated on their platforms.
Zuckerberg declined to answer the question and was cut off, Pichai said his company “worked hard” around the election but also declined to provide a direct response, and Dorsey said yes before noting that the “broader ecosystem” should be taken into account.
When pressed by Doyle, Zuckerberg said he thinks “the responsibility lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection.”
Like many of the Big Tech hearings before it, Thursday’s event offered lawmakers a platform to raise several targeted concerns and yielded some important answers from the CEOs, but did not offer a clear path forward on legislation.
“Yes or no” questions were a consistent theme throughout, at one point leading Dorsey to post a poll on Twitter with a question mark and the choices “Yes” and “No.”
In addition to questions about the role of social media in encouraging the Jan. 6 riot, many Democratic lawmakers focused on the ways that the algorithms that decide what users see on social media platforms might be boosting disinformation.
Full committee chair Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) accused the platforms of “actively amplifying and spreading” disinformation, during his opening remarks.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who reintroduced legislation Wednesday seeking to remove liability protections from platforms if their algorithms boost dangerous content, said action is needed to treat the “underlying diseases” of automated amplification and targeted advertising.
“You chase user engagement at great cost to our society,” she said.
Pichai and Zuckerberg pushed back on those arguments, saying, respectively, that engagement is not their primary goal and that users don’t want to see misinformation.
Doyle made clear that Democrats are ready to move on algorithmic issues.
“We will legislate to stop this, the stakes are too high,” he said.
Democrats also probed the CEOs about coronavirus misinformation, their investments in Spanish language content moderation and anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander racism online.
While Republicans on the panel did focus some questioning on unsubstantiated claims of anti-conservative bias, the lawmakers appeared to pivot the bulk of their strategy to issues around social media addiction and potential threats to younger Americans.
“Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), ranking member of the committee, said. “Remember, our kids, the users, are the product. You – Big Tech – are not advocates for children. You exploit and profit off them.”
Republican lawmakers quizzed the CEOs on suicide statistics and on their own childrens’ online habits.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) pressed Zuckerberg on reports that Instagram is developing a version of its products for children under the age of 13.
“Between this and YouTube Kids, you and Mr. Pichai have obviously identified a business case for targeting this age bracket,” he said.
The Facebook CEO stressed that the idea is in the early stages of development and suggested that the service could be good for “staying connected with friends” and learning “about different types of content online.”
Democratic Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) also spent her questioning focused on children’s issues, including asking whether YouTube Kids autoplays videos and if the Instagram for children service will let users scroll infinitely, suggesting some bipartisan appetite for legislation on such topics.