A core theme emerged in a Senate committee meeting on Wednesday morning: Social media companies are optimizing for attention — and until or unless government rules change, they’ll keep doing so.
Members of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee seemed to arrive at the same conclusion as they heard from a panel that included former high-level engineering executives from both Twitter and Meta.
“Today the algorithms are doing exactly what they’re intended to do, which is maximize attention on the platform,” Alex Roetter, a former senior vice president of engineering at Twitter, told the committee. “If companies were penalized for sharing certain types of content, these algorithms would no longer promote that content, because it would no longer be optimal for them to do so.”
The hearing was intended to discuss the impact of social media on homeland security. TikTok predictably received the most scrutiny, with Sen. Mitt Romney going as far to say it was “a huge risk” to allow “an authoritarian regime to have a social media capability of the scale they have in our country.”
But for the U.S.-based social media companies, the group homed in on the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act as a potential remedy for the perceived online polarization problem. PATA would require digital communication platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to comply when university researchers request data for projects approved by the National Science Foundation. If the platforms fail to do so, they will lose their Section 230 liability protections for hosting third-party content (which they really can’t afford to lose). Any shared data would also need to comply with privacy safeguards.
Near the end of the session, Sen. Rob Portman asked Roetter a leading question about whether PATA would have been helpful "to at least get behind the curtain and figure out why decisions are being made.”
Roetter responded that PATA could be “extremely valuable” by allowing for a better understanding of “what sort of content is promoted and what the internal algorithms are that drive both decision-making and usage of the products.”
Brian Boland, a former vice president of strategic operations and analytics at Facebook, described PATA to the committee as “one of the most important pieces of legislation that is before you all.” Boland took issue with having to take tech companies at their word when they tell the public about operations. “In order to understand the issues that we’re concerned about with hate speech and the way that these algorithms can influence people, we need to have a public understanding and a public accountability of what happens on these platforms,” Boland said.
Though the legislative session is nearing its final days before the midterm election, PATA has a few things going in its favor: It was introduced at the end of 2021 by a group of bipartisan senators, including Republican Sen. Portman and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Perhaps more importantly, PATA doesn’t ask all that much of social media platforms, at least relative to some of the antitrust bills still under consideration. Meta and Twitter already provide at least some data to university researchers. And PATA by itself wouldn’t require them to change their algorithms — it would just give the public greater visibility into them.