Facebook, Twitter under pressure to make rules clearer

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 7, 2018.
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SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON: The more US lawmakers learn about how Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc work, the more they want to know.

In the latest congressional hearings on misinformation and election interference, which featured first-time appearances by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey, the companies committed to trying to get better at explaining how their automated systems work to serve up, sort and block content on their social networks, and how they spot material that needs to be removed.

“There’s a lot of confusion around our rules and around our enforcement,” Dorsey said during solo testimony at an afternoon hearing in the House focused on content decisions. “We intend to fix it.”

Facebook and Twitter have drawn vast audiences and built their businesses for years by touting themselves as open forums for debate and free expression, yet their revenue has mainly depended on opaque ad-targeting and data-collection practices. As they work to become more open and satisfy lawmakers’ demands, the companies are walking a fine line — pledging to improve transparency while stopping short of promising they can solve the problems that made the hearings necessary to begin with, such as abuse, misinformation and manipulation.

The companies have heard many of Wednesday’s questions before, but several new lines of inquiry emerged. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked, for example, why the companies can’t let users know when they’re talking to a bot — an automated account — as opposed to a human, as a way to expose foreign activity.

Senators wanted clarity on how the algorithms work, and why some content gets banned while other posts stay up. In the Senate and House, lawmakers also sought insight into the number of human moderators the companies use, their processes for collaborating with each other or law enforcement, and definitions of abuse or fairness.

Lawmakers also raised the possibility of pushes for privacy legislation. And in a surprise move between the two hearings, the Justice Department issued a statement saying it is convening meetings with several state attorneys general “to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition.” — Bloomberg