Government’s Relationship With Social Media is Still Complicated

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, accompanied by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, accompanied by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Jose Luis Magana/AP

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Facebook and Twitter executives are open to the government helping them stop foreign influence campaigns, but it’s unclear what that would look like.

Despite the strides Facebook and Twitter are making in stopping foreign actors from manipulating their platforms, executives recognize the companies can only get so far without the government's involvement.

But with Russia, Iran and other adversaries working to sway the upcoming midterm elections, lawmakers are urgently trying to figure out what that role should entail.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end. Where we go from here is an open question,” Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Mark Warner, D-Va., said Wednesday.

Testifying before the committee, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg owned up to their companies’ failure to stop Russian actors from using their sites to meddle in the 2016 election. Since then, executives told lawmakers that their organizations made technical and policy changes to significantly curb nefarious activity on their sites.

Sandberg said Facebook blocks millions of attempts to register fake profiles every day and disabled nearly 1.3 billion illegitimate accounts worldwide between October and March. Twitter similarly now challenges some 10 million accounts suspected of deceptive activity every week, more than triple the weekly investigations in September 2017, Dorsey said.

But while platforms step up their game, so too do the foreign actors trying to manipulate them, and Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., reiterated that many of the vulnerabilities that allowed misinformation operations to thrive remain unaddressed.

“We have identified the problem—now it’s time to identify the solution,” he said. “Whatever the answer is, we’ve got to do this collaboratively and we’ve got to do it now.”

Lawmakers took turns grilling panelists on what those solutions might look like.

Both executives expressed support for Warner’s proposal that users should know when they’re interacting with bots or otherwise automated accounts, but Dorsey noted Twitter still struggles to identify more advanced fake accounts. Sandberg also agreed that Facebook has a “moral and legal” obligation to remove accounts that incite violence and didn’t oppose Warner suggesting platforms that don’t do so could face sanctions.

They also both told Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., they see personal data rights as “a national security priority” and would support efforts to strengthen protections.

Dorsey said increased information sharing with federal law enforcement would improve Twitter’s ability to combat influence campaigns. More regular meetings with government officials would help Twitter act faster on the latest manipulation efforts and having a single point of contact in government would save the company time collecting information from multiple agencies, he said.

But he implied there would be limits to the data Twitter shares back with government. After Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., questioned the company’s decision to limit the intelligence community’s access to data, Dorsey said Twitter has a global policy against supporting constant surveillance.

“I disagree with any imperative to be consistent between the government of China and Russia on one hand and the government of the United States on the other,” Cotton said. “I would urge both your companies or any company like yours to consider whether or not they want to be partners in the fight against our adversaries … as opposed even-handed or neutral arbiters.”

While social media platforms and lawmakers work to hammer out what Sandberg called “the right regulation,” both parties need to keep in mind misinformation campaigns can impact far more than just elections, said Megan Stifel, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former international cyber policy director for President Obama’s National Security Council.

“We obviously should tackle what’s happening with elections, but we need to talk about how to combat other malicious misuse of these platforms for other public policy concerns,” she told Nextgov. “We need to think broadly how to address this problem.”

One approach she suggested would be consolidating the practices Twitter and Facebook have implemented into a set of policies that could apply broadly across platforms.

“Working with the companies, I think the government needs to figure out where the appropriate line is,” she said. “If after the midterms it becomes even more clear that what the companies have done still is not enough, I suspect … that will change the dynamic.”