Tech giants under fire at US Senate over privacy, meddling campaigns

Washington - By Shabtai Gold, - Executives from Facebook and Twitter told the US Senate they were not prepared for the 2016 Russian disinformation campaign to meddle in the elections that utilized their platform, but vowed they were taking steps to address the problem.

Senators were critical of search giant Google for failing to send a high-level executive to the hearing.
The hearing comes amid a growing push for some regulation of the social media platforms.
"We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That's on us. This interference was completely unacceptable. It violated the values of our company and of the country we love," Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg told the select committee on intelligence, about 2016.
Senators expressed concerns about sharing users' private data and the misuse of the platform to spread incitement to violence.
Advertisements bought by foreign influence campaigns, all while the social media companies made a profit, was another contested issue.
"Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns and we must not make it easier for our adversaries to seize these weapons and use it against us," said Senator Ron Wyden, a leading lawmaker on technology issues.
Data sharing was a "massive privacy and national security concern," Wyden said, as he pushed both Sandberg and Twitter executive Jack Dorsey to accept that privacy must be a "national security priority." Facebook insisted it does not sell users' data.
Sandberg said Facebook was cracking down on fake accounts as well as ones that spread hate, such as recently spotted users in Myanmar who contributed to attacks on minority groups.
Bullying and hate speech were also being controlled, she said.
"Fake news" was being labelled and matched with content that was factually accurate, as determined by third-party actors, she said, adding that "bad speech can often be countered by good speech."
Dorsey conceded that "bad faith actors were able to game" Twitter and have a negative influence, as he promised to take steps to fix the problem.
"We found ourselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems we've acknowledged," Dorsey said. The company was cracking down on millions of fake accounts weekly.
"I believe we need to question the fundamental incentives that are in our product today," Dorsey admitted. He said the company was "rethinking" whether the number of followers or likes should be key metrics, as examples.
Senator Richard Burr, the committee chairman, said in his opening remarks that regulation might be a solution and the country should conduct "an honest dialogue about what that looks like."
Senators said it was important that users be educated about fake news, while also getting alerts when they followed disingenuous accounts.
Sandberg and Dorsey said they have become better at spotting problems by tracking elections in various countries, including Mexico and in Europe, and working to ensure the integrity of their platforms globally.
Senator Marco Rubio noted that Twitter had a policy of blocking content at the requests of governments in places like Turkey, Russia and Pakistan.
He questioned whether the companies truly believe in "core values" of democracy and free speech, or were merely chasing profits.
Dorsey said that in the case of Turkey the company has pushed back against some requests for censorship. Sandberg said they have not handed over data to Vietnam.
The tech behemoths are facing growing criticism from conservative circles, including President Donald Trump, that they have a liberal bias and are seeking to silence people on the right.
Dorsey denied this but said "even a model created without deliberate
bias may nevertheless result in biased outcomes" and pledged to reduce any "accidental" partisanship.
He will also testify separately in the House of Representatives, where he is expected to face questions on Twitter's content monitoring.
The hearing at the Senate is titled "Foreign influence operations' use of social media platforms."
The hearing is the latest in a series of congressional investigations into meddling using social media platforms. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg recently appeared on Capitol Hill.

Wednesday, September 5th 2018
By Shabtai Gold,

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