Protocol | Policy

Seven things to know about the Big Tech CEO hearing

From Zuckerberg's denials to Dorsey's subtweets, here are a few key moments.

Seven things to know about the Big Tech CEO hearing

The House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey for hours on Thursday.

Photo: Daniel Acker/Getty Images

For the first time since the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter testified before Congress about the role their platforms played in stoking the violence and, well, whatever else members of the House communications and technology subcommittee wanted to ask.

The hours-long hearing covered a range of topics, from misinformation to social media's role in suicide and self-harm to how tech platforms enable civil rights violations. As with every hearing featuring Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey, the committee members seemed at least as committed to grandstanding and chastising the witnesses as they did to asking substantive questions, and the witnesses seemed just as committed to ducking the few substantive questions they were asked.

Still, there were a few moments and themes that illuminated how each executive thinks about future regulation, their own platform's faults and even how seriously they take the committee's questions.

Here's what you need to know:

Zuckerberg refused to take any blame for Facebook's role in the Capitol riot

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg explicitly put the responsibility for the Capitol riot on former President Trump. "We did our part to secure the integrity of the election," Zuckerberg said. "Then, on Jan. 6, President Trump gave a speech rejecting the results and calling on people to fight."

Later, Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle kicked off his questions by asking if the CEOs believe their platforms bear some responsibility for the "Stop the Steal" movement, which culminated in the Capitol riot. Zuckerberg and Pichai both avoided answering the question head-on, while Dorsey said yes.

"Our responsibility is to make sure that we build effective systems," Zuckerberg said, before Doyle cut him off, saying he was choosing "not to answer the question."

Pichai said Google "always feel[s] a deep sense of responsibility, but we worked hard this election." He added: "It's a complex question."

Dorsey, who went last, answered yes. "But you also have to take into consideration the broader ecosystem," he said. "It's not just about the technology platforms that were used."

But Zuckerberg did acknowledge the role of Groups in extremism

It was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but even as he deflected blame for the Capitol riot onto former President Trump, Zuckerberg did cop to the role that Facebook Groups play in political polarization. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger asked Zuckerberg about research from Berkeley computer science professor Hany Farid that suggests Facebook's algorithms "are actively promoting divisive, hateful and conspiratorial content." In response, Zuckerberg touted the company's recent decision to stop recommending civic and political Groups to users.

"We were seeing that that was one vector that there might be polarization or extremism, and Groups might start off with one set of views, but migrate to another place," Zuckerberg said.

While he's spoken publicly about "turn[ing] down the temperature" of the political landscape on Facebook, this was a rare admission on his part of the way Groups can nudge users toward increasingly extremist views.

Pichai and Dorsey gave tepid endorsements of Facebook's Section 230 proposal

Before the hearing even began, Zuckerberg submitted prepared remarks outlining a number of proposals for Section 230 reform. As part of those proposals, Zuckerberg suggested that Congress make platforms' Section 230 immunity contingent on their "ability to meet best practices" to combat the spread of illegal content. "Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it," Zuckerberg wrote, noting that small platforms should face a different set of requirements than large ones.

During the hearing, the committee tried to pin Pichai and Dorsey down on whether they support these recommendations and received some lukewarm endorsements. Pichai said Zuckerberg's pitch includes "good proposals around transparency and accountability, which I've seen in various legislative proposals as well, which I think are important principles." Pichai said Google would "certainly welcome" these types of legislative changes.

Dorsey also said he supports the proposals that have to do with transparency, but said he was concerned about Zuckerberg's approach regarding small platforms. "I think it's going to be very hard to determine what's a large platform and a small problem platform," he said, "and it may incentivize the wrong things."

Zuckerberg won't say whether he shut down efforts to make Facebook less divisive

Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone pointedly asked Zuckerberg about a May 2020 article in The Wall Street Journal, which reported that Zuckerberg had personally curbed efforts to tamp down on divisiveness on the platform. According to the story, Facebook at one point considered limiting the spread of content that is disproportionately favored by hyperactive users, an effort they hoped would reduce the amount of hyperpartisan activity on the platform. The Journal reported that Zuckerberg allowed the plan to go forward, but only after the weighting of the system was cut by 80%.

Zuckerberg repeatedly declined to confirm or deny the Journal's account. "Congressman, I can't speak to that specific example," he said instead, "but we've put in place a lot of different measures, and in the aggregate I think that they're effective."

Zuckerberg and Dorsey say they'd support legislation to mandate diversity reports

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke at length about the impacts the social media platforms have had on Black communities. He specifically pressed the CEOs on the lack of diversity within tech's ranks.

"We would hope that by now, the tech workforce would reflect the diversity of our country," Butterfield said. "There must be meaningful representation in your companies to design your products and services in ways that work for all Americans."

"Would you oppose legislation that would require technology companies to publicly report on workforce diversity at all levels?" Butterfield asked.

"Congressman, I don't think so, but I need to understand it in more detail," Zuckerberg said.

Dorsey, meanwhile, said definitively that he wouldn't oppose such a law. "It does come with some complications, though," Dorsey said. "We don't always have the demographic data for our employees."

Pichai stopped short of offering a yes or no, but pointed out that Google was the first company to publish transparency reports. "We do today provide in the U.S. demographic information on our workforce, and we are committed to doing better," Pichai said.

Lawmakers focused on social media's impact on children

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle found common ground as they grilled the CEOs about how their products affect young children. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the CEOs that she believes they have abused their power "to manipulate and harm our children."

"My husband and I are fighting the Big Tech battles in our household every day," McMorris Rodgers said, referring to her own children. "It's a battle for their development, a battle for their mental health and ultimately, a battle for their safety."

Later, Rep. Kathy Castor, who has introduced legislation to update children's privacy laws, pressed Pichai and Zuckerberg about how they treat children on their platforms.

When she asked Pichai how much Google makes in advertising revenue from children under the age of 13, he said, "Most of our products are not eligible for children under the age of 13," disregarding the immense popularity of children's content on YouTube.

Zuckerberg, responding to the same question, replied, "It should be none of it — children under the age of 13 are not allowed on Instagram." (Facebook is, however, reportedly building an Instagram app for children under 13.) Zuckerberg also revealed that Facebook is researching the impact of social media on children.

Dorsey subtweeted lawmakers during the hearing … and got caught

About halfway through the hearing, Dorsey, who's known for quirky antics and a blasé attitude during congressional testimony, began subtweeting the lawmakers grilling him from the dais.

After Rep. Billy Long asked the tech CEOs whether they understood the difference between "yes" and "no," Dorsey tweeted a poll with two answers: "yes" and "no." His accompanying tweet read, "?"

Dorsey also retweeted former Google policy head Adam Kovacevich, who wrote, "It would be awesome if some Member engaged @jack in a substantive discussion on Twitter's 'protocols' idea. It could achieve a lot of what they're aiming for."

"Agreed," Dorsey added.

Rep. Kathleen Rice called Dorsey out for tweeting while testifying. "Your multitasking skills are quite impressive," Rice said.

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