Five Things to Watch For
How will Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey respond to accusations of bias?
The afternoon hearing involving Mr. Dorsey will be focused on content moderation on Twitter. If this House hearing is anything like the last hearing in July on claims of anti-conservative bias online, then expect Republican lawmakers like Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who is running for a Senate seat, to bring up similar accusations.
The claims of political bias were backed by President Trump last week and have become an increasingly loud rallying cry by Republicans. It’s also been a topic used by lawmakers for fund-raising, including by Ms. Blackburn and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the second-ranking House Republican who is from California, as well as Mr. Trump.
This topic could come up in the Senate hearing as well. Lawmakers may ask what policies govern harassment and hate speech, and how they apply to people like the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Last month, Facebook suspended Mr. Jones for violating the company’s policies, but Twitter did not. Mr. Dorsey will almost certainly talk about new efforts to root out dehumanizing content. Facebook will talk about its results on catching hate speech and how it’s algorithms sometimes block legitimate content.
Will there be new talk about regulating tech companies?
It’s hard to imagine what regulating social media companies would look like, but more lawmakers from both parties are suggesting that something needs to be done to dial back the companies’ power.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, has been vocal recently about the need to re-evaluate the blanket liability protections for social media known as Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Republicans have joined Democrats in a call for privacy regulations and renewed antitrust scrutiny of companies like Google.
Will there be new information on foreign meddling in elections?
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which is owned by Google, have recently found foreign influence campaigns linked to Russia and Iran on their platforms. So far, they have not been able to link those campaigns to the midterm elections this November.
It is possible that the companies will present new information that would tie foreign activity on their sites to the coming elections. And expect lawmakers on the Senate committee to press the companies for updates and more details on how these influence campaigns could be intended to disrupt the integrity of elections in the United States.
What will the companies boast about?
Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey will most likely be eager to describe efforts they have made over the past year to root out disinformation and foreign meddling on their sites. Both companies have revised their policies on political advertising, allowing the public to view who is buying ads. They have promised to hire tens of thousands of content moderators. They have also applied artificial intelligence to detect fake accounts and rid their sites of bots that spread misinformation.
How will the executives perform under pressure?
Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey have been preparing for the hearings for weeks. Mr. Dorsey has also made many media appearances concerning the company’s decision to keep Mr. Jones on Twitter.
How they come across to lawmakers and the public, who will be able to watch the hearings online, could affect the companies’ reputations and elicit greater frustration from lawmakers. The executives have been coached to be apologetic about foreign interference and Facebook’s privacy debacle with Cambridge Analytica, and to answer questions directly and with data to back them up.
— Cecilia Kang
A Year of Pressure
In the year since Congress first called Facebook, Twitter and Google to testify about foreign interference, tech companies have been eager to prove that they are taking the threat seriously.
During a grueling two-day hearing in April, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told lawmakers that cleaning up disinformation was a top priority for his company. In the months since, Facebook has introduced numerous safeguards intended to clearly label political ads and catch false accounts spreading disinformation.
Lawmakers have welcomed those changes, calling them a good start. Staff members on the Senate Intelligence Committee and Facebook executives alike have said that they expected Wednesday’s hearings to be friendlier than Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance had been.
Twitter has introduced some similar measures. Both Facebook and Twitter have focused on removing what they call “inauthentic” — that is, false — accounts which spread disinformation. They have also introduced new rules which require any person running a political ad to be vetted, and they introduced public ad archives which catalog every political advertisement which has run on their platforms.
In recent months, tech companies have met twice at Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters to coordinate their efforts before the midterms. As reported in June, government officials present at the first meeting have questioned whether those efforts go far enough. Tech companies say they are not getting enough support from the government, such as early intelligence warnings on disinformation being spread by foreign entities.
— Sheera Frenkel
Google’s Empty Chair
Google will not be attending the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. But lawmakers will be intent on highlighting their frustration with the company by putting an empty chair and possibly a name plate for Google at the witness table.
Mr. Burr insisted that Google send a top executive to the hearing and invited Mr. Page, the chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. The committee also would have been content to have Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, testify. But Mr. Burr would not accept Google’s offer to send its top lawyer, Kent Walker. Mr. Walker simply is not of the same corporate rank as other witnesses, Ms. Sandberg of Facebook and Mr. Dorsey of Twitter, Mr. Burr said.
Google decision may be rankling members of Congress at a time of increasingly bipartisan concern over Google’s competitive behavior and issues related to privacy, such as location tracking. Google said it would like Mr. Walker to attend because he knows the most at the company about foreign meddling, the topic of the Senate hearing.
“I assume Google carefully calculated their options but it strikes me as an awfully risky move to not send somebody,” said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Cowen and Companhy, a research group. “These hearings are high profile and they form lasting impressions. It doesn’t help that other two companies sent senior executives.”
— Cecilia Kang
Expectations From Senator Warner
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview ahead of the hearing that he hoped it would be less about what happened during 2016 presidential election and more about what Facebook and Twitter are doing to head off a repeat in this year’s midterm election.
“This is an ongoing threat,” Mr, Warner said, noting that Russia, as well as Iran and other countries, were seeking to spread disinformation on social media. “This is an arena that, because it is cheap and effective, that adversaries are going to continue to try to exploit.”
Mr. Warner said that Facebook and Twitter had grown far more responsive to the threat — and to dealing with Congress and other parts of the government — than they were earlier this year. He was especially positive about Twitter, saying the company “really seems to have gotten religion on this.”
“They’ve been much more aggressive in terms of taking down bots,” he added “Which, let’s face it, for a long time pushed up their number of accounts.”
Mr. Warner was less thrilled with Google and its decision not to send Mr. Page.
“it was so wild that Google has been so arrogant not to participate,” Mr. Warner said.
“These companies, they’re having their own kind of crisis of competency in terms of their users, the overall trust and believability,” he added. “I think they need to understand that being part of a solution is not only the right thing to do, but it’s in the best business interest.”
— Matthew Rosenberg