Ex-Twitter, Facebook Executives Urge Lawmakers To Rein In Social-Media Platforms
Senate panel was told that the biggest social media companies can do more to rein in extremism and misinformation.
(Bloomberg) -- Former Twitter Inc. and Facebook executives on Wednesday told a Senate panel that the biggest social media companies can do more to rein in extremism and misinformation, but won’t unless forced to by regulation.
Brian Boland, a former vice president with Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook, and Alex Roetter, Twitter’s former senior vice president for engineering, warned the Senate’s homeland security committee that social media companies including YouTube, Twitter, Meta and TikTok have failed to address the harm their platforms can cause, including how their algorithms can amplify harmful content. They argued that the platforms prioritize profit over ensuring their users are safe.
Both Boland and Roetter urged the panel to pass legislation requiring the companies to create more transparency. Roetter said it’s unlikely that the companies will voluntarily reform their practices.
“Today you don’t know what’s happening with the companies, you have to trust them,” said Boland. “I lost my trust with the companies with what they were doing and what Meta was doing. We should move beyond trust to helping researchers and journalists understand the platforms better.”
Boland contrasted the companies’ development with the auto industry, where advancements are tested and overseen by safety regulators before being put on the road.
“There’s almost no ability to protect our future and create a version of crash-testing a car,” he said.
The social media companies’ “growth over safety incentive structure” is at the root of the companies’ inability to handle the rise of viral misinformation and political extremism, he said.
The former executives testified during a hearing focused on social media’s threats to homeland security. Lawmakers peppered the former executives with questions about how the algorithms feed White supremacist ideology and domestic terrorism. Republicans also focused on alleged censorship of conservative viewpoints by the platforms.
Representatives for Twitter and Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment on the testimony.
The committee is scheduled to hear later Wednesday from current executives with the largest social-media platforms: Twitter, Meta, Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube and China-based TikTok. Twitter executive Jay Sullivan will say that Twitter prioritizes health and safety at every phase of product development, according to his prepared remarks.
The hearing comes a day after Twitter whistle-blower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko testified in front of a separate Senate committee about his allegations that Twitter’s lack of security protections pose a threat to the US. Zatko claimed Twitter has looked the other way while foreign agents accessed sensitive data on U.S. users.
There is heightened interest in Congress about the risk that social media companies pose to users in the US. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have focused their ire on TikTok, the mega-popular social media app owned by ByteDance Ltd.
Critics argue that TikTok’s Chinese ownership puts US users at risk. TikTok says it stores data on US users in the United States and it’s working with Oracle Corp. to create a firewall around the data. TikTok is under scrutiny by a number of government bodies, including the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius.
“I have serious concerns that the Chinese communist party has access to TikTok’s data on American users,” said the panel’s top Republican, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.
The chair of the committee, Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, said the companies’ responses about their efforts to reduce the amount of hate and violence on their platforms have been “incomplete and insufficient” so far.
“There’s a clear connection between online content and offline violence,” Peters said.
Efforts to regulate the companies have so far stalled in Congress amid partisan disagreements and a lobbying surge by tech giants including Meta, TikTok, Google and their trade groups.
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