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How Twitter and Facebook can survive another round of hearings

Facebook, Twitter, and Google app icons on a smartphone screen
Photo: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Influential lawmakers say they want transparency from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey when the two testify before Congress today — and also a sign that the companies are willing to to work with policymakers.

The bottom line: Lawmakers will hear from both platforms about how they're addressing election interference and, in the case of Twitter, confronting allegations of bias against conservatives. But don't expect performances by these executives to put either issue to rest.

Dorsey and Sandberg are expected to focus on the steps they've taken to combat foreign election interference since the 2016 race during their testimony.

Top Senate Intelligence Committee Democrat Mark Warner said that it “will be a successful hearing [before the committee] if coming out of this are three or four notions on how we’re going to be better prepared."

  • “What are the guardrails that should or could be put in place to make sure that Americans may think twice before they believe the validity of a post?” he said.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden said he wants Dorsey to give more details about how the systems that run Twitter work as he probes the allegations that the platform has a pro-liberal bias.

  • “I think a successful hearing is we learn more about who’s behind the curtain and how the levers are pulled when it comes to the algorithms and the decisions that are made that affect free speech,” he said.
  • He also said Dorsey will likely get questioned about a report — that Twitter denies — that the CEO personally overruled staff members who wanted to kick InfoWars’ Alex Jones off the platform.

Walden pushed back on the idea that Republicans have leveled these charges against platforms without much evidence. “I don’t know that there’s never been evidence, and that’s part of the reason why you have a hearing is to get the facts out,” Walden said.

Google’s survival strategy is not to show up at all.

  • The company told the Senate Intelligence Committee it would send Kent Walker, a top policy executive who testified before the panel last year. Lawmakers said no dice to anyone below the CEO level.
  • The committee plans to leave a chair for the company, which means the image of an empty Google seat broadcast to the nation.

What they’re saying: “In addition to providing private briefings, as our senior executive responsible for these issues, I will be in Washington briefing members of Congress on our work on this and other issues and answering any questions they have,” as well as submitting testimony to the committee, Walker said in a blog post on Tuesday.

What they won’t have to say: Anything about China, as lawmakers would have certainly pressed a Google representative on the company’s reported exploration of a censored version of its service there.

  • Expect lawmakers to call out the search giant. “It’s just like, who do they think they are?” Warner said of Google's refusal to appear. Of its unresponsiveness to questions, he added: “I don’t get it, but if Google thinks we’re going away they’re making a big error in judgement."

Go deeper: What Facebook and Twitter will tell lawmakers

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