Senator Susan Collins had a compelling story to tell at the Senate Select Intelligence Committee (SSCI) hearing last week.
Collins spoke about how she learned from a Clemson University database that a foreign adversary had targeted her. She then argued that learning about those efforts from Clemson, not from Twitter, was a problem. According to Collins, users deserve to be notified by social media platforms when they are targeted.
The Collins story, and the hearing in general, provides a model for how Congress and social media companies should work together in the coming years.
The SSCI hearing — which involved social media executives Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook (Google was a no-show at the hearing, as multiple senators noted disapprovingly) — was far from the circus that Mark Zuckerberg endured when he sat before Congress in April. Gone was most of the grandstanding by elected officials. Political diatribes were replaced by specific questions related to whether and how the government should be working with the social media giants to ensure that adversarial foreign governments cannot successfully interfere in our country’s affairs via their platforms. Members and participants also discussed changes the companies could make themselves to reduce interference.
Collins provided specific insights into how foreign adversaries are targeting politicians, as well as a clear call to action. Dorsey responded by confirming that Twitter needs to develop more tools to ensure that people know when they’ve been targeted.
Similar exchanges littered the hearing. And there was no shortage of concrete solutions, either: Notifying users when they’ve been interacting with bots and providing users with more information when an account is disabled, for example. Each of these recommendations could impact an adversary’s ability to use social media to surreptitiously influence the populace.
The ability to interact with lawmakers and brainstorm specific solutions tied to real user-experiences would make these hearings useful not only to Congress, but to the social media companies that participate. Companies won’t just show up to avoid criticism or to prevent bad legislation from interfering with their businesses. Instead, they may gain actual benefits, such as learning from those tasked with representing the public potential new ways to better protect their users from bad actors.
The fact that these conversations happened in an open hearing is also important. The public deserves to know what congressmen who receive intelligence briefings within the secure walls of a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) are worried about, be it bots, disinformation campaigns or interference in elections.
The public also deserves frequent updates from social media executives on what their companies are doing to resolve these problems, as well as what methods have worked and what solutions still need to be developed. Participating in hearings allows companies to take responsibility for failures — as Sandberg did when claiming responsibility for Facebook’s failure to detect Russian interference during the 2016 election — and to present what they’re doing differently in a serious public forum.
Given the very real concerns the public has expressed in the past year, simple press releases notifying people of changes to security settings and privacy updates are insufficient for effectively communicating these changes. Having dialogues take place in a congressional hearing allows public representatives to analyze these updates in a forum where their criticisms will illicit real-time responses from the companies. Given that trust in social media has fallen by 11 percent in the United States, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2018 report, that trust needs to be rebuilt. Opening themselves up to public critique is one way that social media companies can begin the rebuilding process.
At the SSCI hearing, we got to see real, tangible recommendations for improvement; open, civil criticism; and honest, constructive dialogue. This hearing should be a model for future hearings that will inevitably take place as we continue to face challenges from disinformation.