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Silicon Valley Set to Have Its Next Big Conversation With The US Congress

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. (Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. (Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Facebook, Google and Twitter are set to testify before the US Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, with an eye on the mid-term elections just a few weeks away.

The Silicon Valley giants are all set to have their moment before the US Congress. Facebook, Twitter and Google are expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. The hearing is titled “Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms”, and they will be questioning the tech companies about the steps they have taken to prevent foreign entities from using their social media platforms to try and sway voter opinion which could decisively alter the final results. The focus will be on how the tech companies are thwarting, particularly the Russian government-linked campaigns, to influence voters in the US ahead of the mid-term elections in the country. It is less than 10-weeks to the elections, and this is a political hot-point as well.

Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey as well as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee, to testify the work they have done regarding the investigations and implementations of measures to counter the Russian government-linked social media campaigns which are designed to alter voter opinion.

As things stand, Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. has declined the invite for CEO Larry Page, and Google has declined any appearance for CEO Sundar Pichai before the committee. Instead, Kent Walker, SVP Global Affairs and Chief Legal Office at Google has released a written statement as the company’s testimony. In the official post titled ‘Our testimony to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’, Walker says, “We believe that we have a responsibility to prevent the misuse of our platforms and we take that very seriously. Our efforts in this area started many years before the 2016 election. We work to detect and minimize opportunities for manipulation and abuse, constantly tackling new threats and bad actors that arise. Google was founded with a mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful; the abuse of the tools and platforms we build is antithetical to that mission.” He also refers to the recent action against the spread of propaganda by Iranian accounts. The other steps Google elaborates on include an ID verification program for anyone seeking to buy a federal US election ad from Google, in-ad disclosures attached to election ads across Google’s products and a transparency report specific to political ads on Google’s platforms.

It is perhaps interesting to read the last line in Google’s statement, which says, “Met with dozens of Members of Congress and briefed Congressional Committee staff numerous times on our work in this area.” We do not yet know how the Senate Intelligence Committee will react to Google’s non-participation—it does leave a rather glaring gap, considering it is one of the internet giants and has immense responsibility when it comes to dealing with content being shared online. Interesting to note that Google has not pleased many people since it emerged that the tech giant is potentially working on a search engine specific for China, with heavily censored search results. Secondly, President Donald Trump has also recently accused Google of bias in search results.

Google had wanted to send their top lawyer Kent Walker instead, but the committee has declined, stating that Walker had appeared earlier as well.

Facebook’s Sandberg has in fact released a press statement summarizing her upcoming testimony for the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The threat we face is not new. America has always confronted attacks from opponents who wish to undermine our democracy," says Sandberg in the written statement reported by CNBC. "What is new are the tactics they use. That means it's going to take everyone — including industry, governments, and experts from civil society — working together to stay ahead," she adds. Facebook’s testimony will focus on the steps taken thus far, such as identifying and removing fake accounts from the platform, identifying and blocking accounts and groups that work in coordinated fashion to spread a fake or incorrect message, monitor hate or dangerous content more actively using artificial intelligence and also improve the transparency for any political adverts on the platform. Facebook does admit that it had been too slow to spot any potential threats and act on them, for the 2016 perceived meddling by foreign agencies in the elections.

Twitter’s Dorsey has also released a statement ahead of the testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The company had discovered as many as 2,500 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which is believed to be a Russian social media presence to spread their message. In January this year, Twitter confirmed that as many as 1.4 million users interacted with about 4,000 Russian spam accounts in the lead-up to and during the 2016 elections in the US. That in itself adds a rather serious subtext to Dorsey’s testimony. Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled on the Russian interference on the Facebook platform as well. “To preserve the integrity of our platform and to safeguard our democracy, Twitter has also employed technology to be more aggressive in detecting and minimizing the visibility of certain types of abusive and manipulative behaviours on our platform. The algorithms we use to do this work are tuned to prevent the circulation of Tweets that violate our Terms of Service, including the malicious behaviour we saw in the 2016 election, whether by nation states seeking to manipulate the election or by other groups who seek to artificially amplify their Tweets,” says Dorsey in an official statement.

One thing is certain, the tech executives will make complete efforts to show utmost dedication to the cause of cleaning up social media and prevent the spread of fake and incorrect news, propaganda and malicious data which could alter the opinions of users, who in turn could also be voters. Facebook, for instance, will be able to point to a series of new measures, tweaks to settings options and addition of newer safeguards to identify and block content that violates the platform’s constantly updated policies.

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