Facebook, Twitter, YouTube detail fight against extremists at Senate hearing

by The Hill, Ali Breland

Representatives from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter faced lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to give testimony about extremist content on their platforms.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, the tech giants gave a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Silicon Valley companies as lawmakers probed the companies on what anti-terrorism efforts they’re making.

The hearing was less contentious than the Congressional hearings regarding Russian intervention at the beginning of November. Instead of grilling the companies, lawmakers primarily used the hearing to educate themselves on what the firms are doing to keep extremist content off their platforms.

Despite the relaxed climate of the hearing, lawmakers still underscored the need for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to keep their platforms free of extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.

“This is a really important issue. Our democracy is at risk,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube took advantage of their testimony to tout efforts they’ve taken over the past several years to curb the presence of extremist content on their platforms.

The three boasted about how advancements that they had made in machine learning techniques had drastically boosted the amount of extremist content they’ve detected and taken off their platforms, as well as the numbers of employees they have devoted to removing such content.

They also described a partnership they formed between several tech companies to share information about extremists use of their platforms.

The companies use such alliances to swap data like “hashes,” allow them to tag photos and videos that have already been flagged for removal and use their algorithms to quickly detect attempts to re-upload such content and delete it immediately.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) gave the companies high marks for their responses following the hearing and praised the steps they’ve taken.

“I think this was a really good first step,” Thune told reporters after the hearing. “I feel like the companies, by and large, were pretty responsive and I think we got a better sense for the things that they’re already doing. I don’t know at this point it requires or necessitates any additional action.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a high ranking Democrat on the committee, also said that he didn’t take issue with the companies’ responses but said that he would reserve judgment until he saw results.

“They need to do more and they are acknowledging that they need to do more,” Blumenthal told reporters. “I’ll be pleased if they do more. I’m going to measure their response by their actions.”

Despite the comparative ease of Wednesday’s hearing, there were still tense moments when lawmakers challenged the technology companies’ commitment to keeping extremists and malicious foreign governments off their platform.

“Based on results, you’re not where you need to be for us to be reassured that you’re securing our democracy,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told Twitter in regard to its problem with automated accounts being used by such malicious actors. “How can we know that you’re going to get this right before the midterms?”

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Fla.) also pushed the firms on how manipulation of their platforms could undermine “the very foundation of American democracy.”

“This should be a wake-up call to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and indeed to all Americans, regardless of party,” he said referring to a U.S. intelligence assessment which said that Russian President Vladimir Putin saw his election influence campaign as a success.

“This was an attack on the very foundation of American democracy and we must do everything in our power to see that it never happens again.”

Even as major Silicon Valley companies work to clamp down on their platforms, some say the future of terrorists digital efforts may increasingly be out of their hands.

“In some [extremist] forums right now they’re trying to find new platforms where they can communicate in a secure fashion and push their propaganda around the world,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has testified before the Senate on Russian operations, who also testified on Wednesday.

“They’re seeking a new home. They just haven’t found it yet.”