Brandon Silverman is a big part of why anyone knows anything about what's happening on Meta's platforms: As the co-founder and former CEO of CrowdTangle, he created what was, for a while at least, the most robust real-time look at what's happening on social media's biggest platforms at any given time.
Now, that tool is quietly dying, and in his testimony during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Silverman explained why.
"There were a lot of challenges inside Facebook, but one of them was certainly the question of: Are we putting ourselves out on a limb when others aren't?" Silverman told the panel of lawmakers. "These companies can do very little, and it doesn't matter."
Of the Big Tech giants, Meta has arguably done the most to reveal what's happening under the hood both through CrowdTangle and through its transparency reports. But far from generating praise, that has often only made the company the subject of more scrutiny. "No matter how much transparency you do," Silverman said, "you're rarely going to get credit for it in the public eye."
Silverman spoke about the challenges of running a product that mostly exists to get its parent company in trouble. "It can be incredibly uncomfortable when your work and the work of your team are constantly fueling criticism — some fair and some not — of the company where you work," he said. "Those moments take a toll on your team. But they also make it harder to get resources. They make it more difficult to launch new features and add more data. And ultimately, they provide constant ammunition to executives who are skeptical about doing transparency."
Silverman left the company last fall, and has since been careful in his criticism of his former employer. But his testimony was clear about the end result of all of this tension inside the company. "CrowdTangle is still available, but it's in maintenance mode," he said. "Facebook has stopped onboarding new partners. No new features or major updates have been released in two years, and a global partnerships team that used to run it no longer exists."
That, Silverman argued, should serve as proof that tech companies can't be trusted to be sufficiently transparent all on their own. "It's too hard to make progress on these issues at the scale and breadth we need from inside a company," he said. "And as a result, we've seen is that the industry as a whole has simply not made enough progress equal to the responsibilities they have."
Silverman called on lawmakers to pass the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, which he said would be an "important step in the right direction." That bipartisan bill would require platforms to provide access to certain data to pre-vetted researchers. Europe's Digital Services Act includes a similar provision.
But both Silverman and experts on the panel pointed out that transparency must be balanced with user privacy — an easier task to achieve in Europe, which, unlike the U.S., has enshrined privacy rights under the GDPR. "It gives them a baseline to start with in how privacy is supposed to work that then you can build transparency on top of," Stanford Cyber Policy director Daphne Keller told the senators. "You are in a much more difficult position."