The on-going investigations into election interference and misinformation by the United States congress saw appearances by both the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and the CEO of Twitter, who spoke before the hearing for the first time earlier this month.

US Senators were looking for clarity on how the platforms algorithms work, and what leads certain posts to get banned, while others are not affected. They also sought information on the use of human moderators by the companies, their processes for collaborating with law enforcement, and concrete definitions of abuse or fairness.

Open Forums With Opaque Practices

Although both Twitter and Facebook promote themselves as being open platforms for freely expressing opinions, both companies depend on advertising revenue that relies on ad targeting and data collection processes that remain closely guarded secrets.

These hearings, and the associated scandals, are causing the companies to work to become more open. However, they face a difficult task as they agree to become more open, without giving any guarantees that they can stop or prevent online abuse, misinformation or manipulation.

Thanks to earlier stages of the hearing, Facebook already has some experience in dealing with the questions put by the US Senators, and their representative Sheryl Sandberg largely reprised statements already made by CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his testimony in April, including mentioning that Facebook has hired thousands of new staff to improve security procedures, and content policies.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was not as accomplished a speaker before the hearing, but was praised for his honesty in admitting the difficulties they would face in implementing certain safeguards.

Automated Challenges

One of the issues that came under scrutiny was the proliferation of automated or “bot” accounts, with questions regarding why the companies could not notify users when they were engaging with a bot account.

Dorsey explained however that it would be very difficult to reliably label bots, due to how effectively they can be programmed to imitate a human on Twitter.

Tech jargon, and Dorsey’s attempt to explain the hundreds of “signals” that contribute to content decisions, also frustrated some members of Congress, which has long pushed for the platforms to become easier for consumers to understand.

Google was notable by its absence from the hearing, although CEO Larry Page was invited, the company attempted to send their chief legal officer, who was rejected.