Facebook, YouTube and Twitter executives are slated to testify at a Senate Judiciary hearing on algorithmic amplification next week, according to congressional aides, setting up a marquee session on a practice that’s facing mounting scrutiny from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Who’s on tap: Monika Bickert, vice president of content policy at Facebook; Alexandra Veitch, public policy lead for the Americas at YouTube; and Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter, will appear Tuesday before the panel’s privacy and technology subcommittee, said the aides. They’ll testify on a panel alongside two outside experts: Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who has become a vocal critic of industry giants; and Joan Donovan, a leading scholar on misinformation and research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media.
Why algorithms: Democratic lawmakers are increasingly sounding the alarm about how digital platforms’ algorithms can contribute to the spread of misinformation, hate speech and extremist content by boosting the visibility of harmful material to users.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chair of the subcommittee hosting the hearing, told POLITICO last month that he plans to make social media and algorithmic accountability a top issue for his panel this Congress.
“Social media platforms use algorithms that shape what billions of people read, watch and think every day, but we know very little about how these systems operate and how they’re affecting our society," Coons told POLITICO on Friday. "Increasingly, we’re hearing that these algorithms are amplifying misinformation, feeding political polarization and making us more distracted and isolated.”
No tech CEOs this time: Coons said in March he was “very likely” to call tech executives including the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook to testify on the topic. But the upcoming session will feature testimony from executives overseeing the companies’ content policies instead.
"We are doing that in part because we want it to be not so much like a grievance session where people just complain about the platforms to CEOs … We want to have kind of a more in-depth dialogue about some of these issues," said one of the aides.
But the aides said the option of hauling in the CEOs is still on the table for the panel down the road.
YouTube in the hot seat, for once: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has testified before Congress four times in the past year, while Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai have appeared three times during that stretch.
But YouTube, a Google subsidiary and the world’s second-largest social media platform behind Facebook, has been called up to Capitol Hill sparingly over the years compared to rivals Facebook and Twitter or even its parent company. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has never testified alongside the other tech chiefs.
Congressional aides said researchers have found YouTube to generally be less transparent about how their algorithms work than some other prominent platforms. How YouTube determines which videos to recommend to its users will be a big focus for the hearing, they said.
Where things stand on legislation: Two prominent House Democrats, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), have introduced legislation to revoke online platforms’ liability protections in instances where platforms amplify content that leads to certain real-world harms, such as civil rights infringements or acts of international terrorism.
Algorithmic amplification has also increasingly faced scrutiny from Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose leaders have pledged to legislate against the spread of domestic extremism and misinformation on social media.
But it remains to be seen if it’s an issue where Democrats can draw significant bipartisan buy-in from Republicans, who have traditionally been more concerned about how tech companies restrict content, not amplify it.
“This isn’t a show hearing to pound the table — it’s a chance to learn," said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, the subcommittee’s top Republican, in a statement. "I want to dig into the role of algorithms in spreading information and shaping behavioral health.”
Congressional aides said they hoped to draw bipartisan interest by focusing the session on structural issues in how companies approach content moderation, rather than how they handle specific types of material, such as political speech.
The hearing could inform discussions about whether to give regulators at the Federal Trade Commission more authority to oversee companies’ practices, or shed light on whether additional federal investigations into the tech sector are needed, the aides said.