Facebook and Twitter in DC: What the congressional hearings looked like up close
You know that feeling when something is important to you but other people just don’t care?
That’s how some congressional lawmakers felt this week after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and, notably, no one from Google testified for a combined eight hours before two committees.
The hearings were kind of important, given that they focused on hot-button issues like censorship, fake news and election interference by hostile foreign groups. And lawmakers did get Sandberg and Dorsey to travel to Capitol Hill just two months before the US midterm elections to offer their take on what they’re doing to make sure bad actors don’t use their popular social media platforms — again — to muck up our democracy.
But as Sandberg and Dorsey entered the hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, most of the world was tuned in elsewhere.
Down the block in the Hart Senate Office Building, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, was being challenged by Democrats for the second day about his qualifications for the lifetime appointment. The internet was buzzing about details of ‘Fear,’ a new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward that paints an unflattering portrait of Trump’s leadership skills and how the current administration operates.
And on Wednesday, all eyes turned to an explosive opinion piece in The New York Times written by an unnamed senior government official claiming to be part of a ‘resistance’ inside the Trump administration. These people pick and choose which of the president’s orders to follow or ignore as they work to ‘preserve’ our democracy, the piece says.
So it’s not hard to see why the hearings with Facebook and Twitter got less attention than they should have. That doesn’t mean they weren’t interesting though. After all, tech has a lot to answer for.
And the questions asked by lawmakers suggest that in the future the actions of companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter will be the subject of more review — and of possible regulation. It’s clear Congress is concerned these companies aren’t doing right by the billions of people who use their platforms and services.
But when the first hearing in the Senate adjourned around noon, about half the public audience seats were already empty. In comparison, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before three congressional committees in April about how the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica misused the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users, the hearing was packed for what felt like the showdown of the century between DC and Silicon Valley.
Here’s what it was like covering the other big Washington story this week.
Conspiracy theories come to life
Normally the action in a congressional hearing is on the floor, where senators sit facing their invited witnesses. But on Wednesday, news cameras swung to the audience section and started clicking.
There wasn’t a protester screaming, like so many during the Kavanaugh hearings. Instead, there was conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Jones runs a website called Infowars, where he’s become known for spreading false information, including that 9/11 was an inside job, that dead children from the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings were fake, and that the surviving teenage victims of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, were ‘crisis actors.’
For years, he’s been on the far fringes of politics. But Trump appeared on his show during the 2016 presidential campaign, rocketing Jones to fame.
By August, however, the tech industry had had enough of Jones and his wanton destruction of people’s lives. Apple, Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Spotify, Stitcher and others banned him from their services. Twitter initially didn’t follow along, choosing instead to suspend him after he encouraged his viewers to ‘have their battle rifles’ ready, amid statements like ‘mainstream media is the enemy’ and ‘now it’s time to act on the enemy.’
Jones, who traveled from his home in Texas to the hearing room, said in an interview that the companies were ‘absolutely cowards’ and that he intended to attend more hearings in the future. ‘They demonize me in all these hearings,’ he said.
By midday, though, Jones made a decision that may’ve been his undoing. In the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building before Dorsey’s second hearing of the day was about to begin, Jones accosted a CNN reporter for more than 10 minutes, calling him ‘evil looking’ and comparing him to a rat.
On Thursday, Twitter banned Jones from its service.
‘Today, we permanently suspended @realalexjones and @infowars from Twitter and Periscope,’ the Twitter Safety account said in a tweet. ‘We took this action based on new reports of tweets and videos posted yesterday that violate our abusive behavior policy, in addition to the accounts’ past violations.’
Jones wasn’t the only person who disrupted the hearings. Laura Loomer, a self-described conservative journalist, yelled at Dorsey during the House hearing. Missouri Congressman Billy Long drowned her out using an auctioneer’s voice. Figures, he used to be one.
No trolls (Russian ones, at least)
Amanda Werner is no stranger to congressional hearings. Last year, the 29-year-old protester dressed as the Monopoly Man and photobombed Equifax CEO Richard Smith during his Senate testimony. Then, at Zuckerberg’s hearings in April, Werner dressed as a troll doll wrapped in a Russian flag shawl (get it?).
But this time, Werner was just as absent as Google.
That’s because the activist would rather people didn’t even watch these tech hearings and decided not to help draw any attention to them. Werner thinks the topics for the hearings — particularly Dorsey’s session with the House, which focused on accusations of bias against conservatives — were misleading.
‘This hearing to me seems like it’s mostly a setup by conservatives pushing their false narrative,’ Werner said in an interview. ‘It strikes me as crazy.’
Werner isn’t alone. Several Democrat lawmakers argued the same thing during Dorsey’s hearing. They said there are many things wrong with how Twitter operates today, but bias against the right isn’t one of them. Rep. Michael Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, called it a ‘load of crap.’
When the hearings were first announced, the Senate intelligence committee said it had invited Sandberg and Dorsey, along with Larry Page, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet. But Google wouldn’t confirm he was planning to attend.
The committee rebuffed Google’s offer to instead send Kent Walker, its senior vice president of global affairs. ‘I told them I wasn’t accepting the senior vice president,’ Chairman Richard Burr told The Washington Post.
It just got worse from there. When it became clear Google wouldn’t show, the committee printed out a name card that said ‘GOOGLE’ and placed it on an empty chair next to Dorsey and Sandberg at the witness table. Throughout the three-hour hearing, several senators made gestures to the empty chair, asking whether Google was arrogant or too afraid to answer questions.
‘To the invisible witness, good morning to you,’ Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat from Google’s home state of California, said as she began her questions.
Google’s stance seemed to have burned goodwill among lawmakers, Sen. Mark Warner said in an interview after the hearing concluded.
‘Google made a huge mistake by not attending our hearing,’ Warner said. ‘All that will do is simply raise questions about certain areas beyond even Russian interference that people want to ask questions about.’
In the end, that empty chair may be the most lasting image from this week’s tech hearings. The fact that the sessions could be best remembered for something that was missing might be the perfect metaphor for why lawmakers wanted them in the first place. After all, something else has been a no-show: transparency from the tech industry on how it goes about disrupting our lives, for good and for bad.