But while many of Wednesday’s questions and answers echoed earlier statements by tech executives over the past year, the looming presence of personalities like Jones and Johnson served as a physical reminder of the still pervasive menace of misinformation. Facebook and YouTube may have kicked Jones off their platforms (and tanked his traffic in the process), but they still can’t seem to shake the toxicity he propagates and personifies.
Members of Congress mostly ignored the sideshow swirling around the internet trolls in the audience, instead questioning Dorsey and Sandberg on the fine line between allowing free speech and preventing harassment and disinformation campaigns. They pressed the executives on the steps their platforms have taken to identify foreign influence campaigns, and how they respond to requests from foreign countries like Turkey and Russia to suppress speech. In fact, Jones got only a glancing reference in the morning session, when Democratic senator Martin Heinrich asked the panel how they might deal with a US citizen who “says that victims of a mass shooting were actually actors, for example.” Jones has famously claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax.
If that’s true, Rubio wasn’t particularly well-prepared for the hearing. Jones has been at the white-hot center of a debate over tech companies’ responsibility to police not just foreign threats but also outright lies and abusive behavior from domestic actors. Recently, Facebook and YouTube suspended pages and accounts associated with Jones and his InfoWars broadcast. Apple and Spotify removed his podcasts. Twitter has, meanwhile, opted to allow Jones to operate, even while it banned fellow troll Chuck Johnson years ago.
This patchwork of policies has opened the companies up to accusations of censorship, not just by the Jones and Johnson set but by government officials as well. Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee repeatedly accused Dorsey of “shadowbanning” conservatives in the afternoon session, by now a familiar refrain. Separately on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that attorney general Jeff Sessions would meet with state attorneys general to discuss whether tech companies are suppressing free speech.
The members of the committee also floated potential fixes. Democratic senator Mark Warner asked whether Twitter might consider labeling bots on the platform, an idea Dorsey said the company has contemplated. “We are interested in it, and are going to do something along those lines,” Dorsey said.
‘Perhaps they didn’t send a witness to answer these question because there is no answer to those questions.’
SENATOR TOM COTTON
It wasn’t just the tech representatives in the room facing questions. Between Dorsey and Sandberg was an empty seat, held open for an executive from Google. The committee invited both Google CEO Sundar Pichai as well as Larry Page, Google’s cofounder and CEO of its parent company Alphabet. The search giant refused to send either executive, instead offering senior vice president Kent Walker, who previously testified last fall. In an interview with WIRED last week, senator Mark Warner criticized Google’s resistance. “This is a hearing that’s going to talk about solutions. I think it speaks volumes that Google doesn’t want to be part of that discussion.”
“Perhaps they didn’t send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to those questions,” speculated senator Tom Cotton during the hearing.
In truth, after hours of cumulative testimony over the past year, there are still no clear answers to many of the questions being posed. For months, Congress has challenged Twitter, Google, and Facebook on matters of data privacy, foreign manipulation, ideological echo chambers, and content moderation. They’ve even prompted substantive changes at all three companies, with new policies in place and new tools and more humans helping to implement them. On Wednesday, Dorsey and Sandberg spoke earnestly and in detail about those improvements. But like Jones heckling Rubio just outside the hearing, the ugly, fact-free information landscape he personifies continues to needle all of the major platforms.
As committee chairman Richard Burr said as he concluded the hearing, “There’s no clear and easy path forward.”
After the morning session, as the crowd spilled onto the sidewalks of Capitol Hill, Jones stood outside berating Dorsey and members of the public as they passed. And so, the Senate’s year-long investigation into what’s ailing the internet, arguably the only serious investigation of the topic in the government, ended just as it began: with internet trolls spreading hate and confusion, only this time in real life.