Bloviating conspiracy theorist Alex Jones whispered loudly in the front row with far-right media personality Jack Posobiec. Banned Twitter troll Chuck Johnson sat a few seats down giggling intermittently at who knows what. A man in a black shirt with the words “FBI used toddler for SEX" printed in red block print meandered in and out of the room.
The internet’s biggest problems quite literally took a front-row seat at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday, where Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, updated lawmakers on how they're addressing the issues of foreign influence and fake news that have plagued their platforms. Dorsey followed up with a solo session before the House Energy and Commerce Committee a few hours later.
But while many of Wednesday's questions and answers echoed earlier statements by tech executives over the past year, the looming presence of personalities like Jones and Johnson served as a physical reminder of the still pervasive menace of misinformation. Facebook and YouTube may have kicked Jones off their platforms (and tanked his traffic in the process), but they still can't seem to shake the toxicity he propagates and personifies.
Members of Congress mostly ignored the sideshow swirling around the internet trolls in the audience, instead questioning Dorsey and Sandberg on the fine line between allowing free speech and preventing harassment and disinformation campaigns. They pressed the executives on the steps their platforms have taken to identify foreign influence campaigns, and how they respond to requests from foreign countries like Turkey and Russia to suppress speech. In fact, Jones got only a glancing reference in the morning session, when Democratic senator Martin Heinrich asked the panel how they might deal with a US citizen who "says that victims of a mass shooting were actually actors, for example." Jones has famously claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax.
The sparse crowd let out a chuckle. But Jones didn't hear it. By then, he and his entourage had abandoned the hearing in favor of pacing the hallways, heckling lawmakers like senator Marco Rubio in front of a phalanx of microphones and cameras. “Who is this guy? I swear to god I don’t know who you are, man,” Rubio told Jones, who stood poking and prodding the senator as he talked to reporters.
If that’s true, Rubio wasn’t particularly well-prepared for the hearing. Jones has been at the white-hot center of a debate over tech companies' responsibility to police not just foreign threats but also outright lies and abusive behavior from domestic actors. Recently, Facebook and YouTube suspended pages and accounts associated with Jones and his InfoWars broadcast. Apple and Spotify removed his podcasts. Twitter has, meanwhile, opted to allow Jones to operate, even while it banned fellow troll Chuck Johnson years ago.
This patchwork of policies has opened the companies up to accusations of censorship, not just by the Jones and Johnson set but by government officials as well. Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee repeatedly accused Dorsey of "shadowbanning" conservatives in the afternoon session, by now a familiar refrain. Separately on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that attorney general Jeff Sessions would meet with state attorneys general to discuss whether tech companies are suppressing free speech.
But the morning hearing, which stood in stark contrast to the circus outside, focused less on partisan bias than on what steps tech companies have taken to stop foreign influence campaigns. Recently, Facebook, Twitter, and Google each suspended hundreds of accounts and pages linked to Iran after receiving a tip from the cybersecurity firm, FireEye, rather than spotting it themselves. "In our mind that’s the system working," Sandberg said.
The members of the committee also floated potential fixes. Democratic senator Mark Warner asked whether Twitter might consider labeling bots on the platform, an idea Dorsey said the company has contemplated. "We are interested in it, and are going to do something along those lines," Dorsey said.
It wasn't just the tech representatives in the room facing questions. Between Dorsey and Sandberg was an empty seat, held open for an executive from Google. The committee invited both Google CEO Sundar Pichai as well as Larry Page, Google’s cofounder and CEO of its parent company Alphabet. The search giant refused to send either executive, instead offering senior vice president Kent Walker, who previously testified last fall. In an interview with WIRED last week, senator Mark Warner criticized Google’s resistance. “This is a hearing that’s going to talk about solutions. I think it speaks volumes that Google doesn’t want to be part of that discussion.”
Last month, a bipartisan group of senators, including Warner and Rubio, sent a letter to Google after reports surfaced that the company planned to launch a censored search engine in China. In its response, submitted Friday night of Labor Day weekend, Pichai sidestepped questions about censorship. He confirmed Google’s interest in China, framing it as crucial to reaching the “next billion users.” But with regard to the country's draconian control over information, Pichai wrote only, “We are committed to promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy, as well as to respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate. We seek to strike the right balance in each context.”
"Perhaps they didn't send a witness to answer these questions because there is no answer to those questions," speculated senator Tom Cotton during the hearing.
In truth, after hours of cumulative testimony over the past year, there are still no clear answers to many of the questions being posed. For months, Congress has challenged Twitter, Google, and Facebook on matters of data privacy, foreign manipulation, ideological echo chambers, and content moderation. They've even prompted substantive changes at all three companies, with new policies in place and new tools and more humans helping to implement them. On Wednesday, Dorsey and Sandberg spoke earnestly and in detail about those improvements. But like Jones heckling Rubio just outside the hearing, the ugly, fact-free information landscape he personifies continues to needle all of the major platforms.
Just last weekend, Twitter allowed a photo of a grieving Meghan McCain, which had been doctored to make it look like a gun was pointing at her head, stay up for five hours before it was taken down. Buzzfeed reported this week that researchers had successfully purchased ads on Google and YouTube while posing as Kremlin trolls. And Facebook is still struggling to prevent its platform from being used to incite violence in countries like Myanmar and Libya.
As committee chairman Richard Burr said as he concluded the hearing, "There's no clear and easy path forward."
After the morning session, as the crowd spilled onto the sidewalks of Capitol Hill, Jones stood outside berating Dorsey and members of the public as they passed. And so, the Senate's year-long investigation into what's ailing the internet, arguably the only serious investigation of the topic in the government, ended just as it began: with internet trolls spreading hate and confusion, only this time in real life.