On September 5, 2018, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, was set to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington DC regarding Twitter’s platform being used for meddling in the 2016 Presidential Election. Dorsey entered the Dirksen Senate Office Building hearing room, where people were frantically moving around. There were dozens of cameras directly in front of the witness table getting all angles of his entrance and seating. The room was very tense as Dorsey and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, sat down in anticipation of the hearing. The entire time, the executives had photojournalists swarming them with their cameras, filming their every move. Suspense in the room developed further as Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner shook hands with Dorsey and Sandberg. They then began the hearing with a few words from the Chairman discussing the grounds of hearing, and then each executive made opening remarks.
As the hearing began, Chairman Burr stated that the purpose of the hearing was to inquire into Russia’s use of social media in 2016 in its attempt to “interfere in U.S. elections and those of [their] allies,” based on the report issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee.1 In his opening statement, Dorsey then explained,
“Twitter prioritizes identifying suspicious account activity, such as exceptionally high-volume Tweeting with the same hashtag or mentioning the same @handle without a reply from the account being addressed, and requires an individual using the platform to confirm control. Twitter has also increased its use of challenges intended to catch automated accounts, such as reCAPTCHAs, that require individuals to identify portions of an image or type in words displayed on screen, and password reset requests that protect potentially compromised accounts. Twitter is also in the process of implementing mandatory email or cell phone verification for all new accounts.”2
This statement began the hearing with Dorsey claiming a new transparency for his company, and an explanation of what the company has done in response to the claims of political meddling.
The tension began to build as Vice Chairman Warner questioned Dorsey on whether there was evidence in either the Russian context or any recent disruptions that the new policies on ad transparency had helped stop foreign purchases of political ads on the platform. Dorsey calmly responded, stating, “In some cases, our new transparency requirements go further than the draft legislation—for example, by requiring transparency for all advertisers regardless of topic, and by committing to the inclusion of advertisements for candidates on state and local levels.”3 Warner also questioned Dorsey on how his company would identify and stop misuse of their platform after having failed to have done so in the past. To this, Dorsey stated,
“In August, we removed approximately 50 accounts misrepresenting themselves as members of various state Republican parties. We have also taken action on Tweets sharing media regarding elections and political issues with misleading or incorrect party affiliation information…Twitter is committed to protecting the integrity of elections. We have made recent improvements to three critical areas of our election integrity efforts: (1) Updates to the Twitter Rules (2) Detection and Enforcement; and (3) Product Improvements.”4
The advancements to their rules and policies as a company demonstrate how they were listening and responding to complaints and issues that the platform was facing. To maintain currency on the platform, they would be continually coming out with new features so that users would be able to stay informed and see the best content first. Dorsey explained that they have learned to react more quickly and prevent such abuse of its platform in the future, so that the company would not be under fire for political meddling.
Democrats and Republicans think very differently about Twitter and the risk/reward it poses for politics. In 2018, the Democrats believed that the platform needed to be patrolled better, but that conservative voices were trying to manipulate the situation to benefit their party in elections. The Democrats believed that no changes needed to be made to the platform as information was being presented equally to users, and voices were not being censored. Republicans strongly believed that the company was strongly biased against their political party and its representatives. Representatives Jim Jordan and James Sensenbrenner wrote in a letter written to Dorsey, “Twitter’s discrimination against conservative voices is extremely alarming. These actions give rise to concerns that the company is systematically engaged in the disparate treatment of political speech and is deceiving users of the platform by not uniformly applying its terms of service.”5 They expressed their concerns particularly for the platform’s actions and treatment towards Donald Trump. Journalist Paul Sperry stated that “Federal records reveal 80 percent of Twitter’s corporate PAC contributions in the 2018 election cycle have gone to Democratic candidates, none of whom are moderates. Liberal Democrats also got top dollar in the 2016 race” which can further explain the conservative bias within the platform.6 These Republicans raised concerns about the integrity of the company and whether the accusations they raised were correct that Twitter was manipulating information that it was presenting to its users.
Within the hearing, there were Senators from differing political backgrounds making the conversations within the hearing multisided. There was strong pushback from the Democratic Senators, because they believed that the Republicans were manipulating the situation to their benefit by saying their voices were being censored. They believed that in saying this, the conservative voices would have priority leading to a political advantage when using the platform. The notion that social media platforms were intentionally choosing what political content would be displayed was stressed by “Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, [who] accused Republicans of sounding the alarm of bias for political gain.”7 The Democratic voices were more concerned about the political meddling from outside countries than the potential bias of U.S. presidential candidates and parties. That bias is what conservative voices raised as curbing their right to speak and their freedom of political representation, due to their censorship on Twitter. Consequently, liberals replied that there was no bias and that if the platform were to change, they would become disadvantaged in being able to voice their opinions. Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, said, “We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company had discriminated against conservatives.”8 This stressed the methods the platform uses to recommend and promote specific accounts and tweets for users to follow. Throughout the hearing, there was emphasis from the Republican voices that the algorithms on the platform suppressed the voices and views of conservative individuals and parties.
In response to the Republican accusations, Dorsey repeatedly stated that Twitter did not exhibit any bias towards conservative voices on the platform. Dorsey clarified in his testimony, stating, “Our responsibility is to understand, measure, and reduce accidental bias due to factors such as the quality of the data used to train our algorithms.”9 He stated at the hearing, “I do believe there is growing concern around power that companies like ours hold…People do see us as a digital public square and that comes with certain expectations.”10 As a response to the claims of favoritisms towards tweets that aligned with their personal values, Dorsey stated, “Looking at the data, we analyzed tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate, and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Republican, even after our ranking and filtering of tweets has been applied.”11
“Those to whom we grant access to our APIs are prohibited from using the data to manipulate conversations or otherwise abuse the data. Between April and June 2018 alone we removed more than 143,000 applications that we determined to be in violation of our developer policies… In July 2018, we introduced a new measure designed to increase developers’ accountability for applications that create and engage with Twitter content and accounts. Twitter now reviews and conducts compliance checks of all developers’ stated use of the data that they wish to access.”12
Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, asked to better understand how the company decided to suspend or ban users from the service and how it ensured that there wasn’t any bias in doing so. Dorsey was asked to address online election meddling and conservative censorship. Republicans accused Twitter of being politically biased against conservatives due to the suppression of their tweets. From his written testimony, Dorsey said that Twitter “does not use political ideology to make any decisions,” and “We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our rules impartially,” and “In fact, from a simple business perspective and to serve the public conversation, Twitter is incentivized to keep all voices on the platform.”13
As the hearing concluded, Dorsey explained that their focus would be about improving the overall health of Twitter, as it was their top priority. The platform would add a political conversation dashboard that would “evaluate the integrity of political conversations on the platform in the aggregate, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on elections in the United States in the near term.”14 They wanted to maintain integrity in the information that users were seeing by having political-candidate verification so that individuals running for office would be easily recognizable. Dorsey continually stressed throughout the hearing that they were committed to being transparent and accountable with users as well as having collaborations with other social media platforms. He admitted that Twitter needed to improve its process of detecting fake accounts and notifying users. Based on the hearing, senators made it clear that regulations would come in the future. Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, then stated, “Congress is going to have to take action here…the era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”15 This left the hearing somewhat open-ended, due to the concerning level of control these companies have over Congress. There will need to be more severe actions in the future, if there is the desire to fully control the way political parties and candidates are represented through social media.
Since the hearing in 2018, there have been no significant changes made. The platform followed through with some security measures in removing bots and fake accounts that were meddling in previous elections. On October 28, 2020, Dorsey was set to attend another hearing regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. There were conflicting pressures as the Democrats believed they needed to patrol Twitter more aggressively, and the Republicans think there needs to be a more hands-off approach with political speech on the platform. “The incidents have galvanized a new drive on Capitol Hill to rethink Section 230, as well as a slew of legislative proposals that might open the door for the government to hold Facebook, Google, and Twitter liable for their decisions about what to allow and prohibit online. Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook), Sundar Pichai (CEO of Alphabet), and Dorsey each sought to defend Section 230, arguing it is what allows them to keep their platforms open to expression.”16 This is particularly relevant to the 2020 Presidential election and the potential political bias against one or both parties. This situation is far from resolved in terms of powerful tech companies like Twitter being intertwined with Congress. Dorsey is set to testify on November 17, 2020, which is where some sort of resolution may be reached.