American Politicians Of Both Parties Are Ill-Equipped To Handle Social Media’s Problems

Note: I wasn’t able to watch the entire hearing due to a severe weather outbreak, but I did see the first two hours.

On Thursday, the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google/Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify on their platforms’ roles in the 1/6/21 Capitol insurrection. The entire hearing was a comedy of errors, and it was all too predictable. The entire hearing was a farce, and it played out exactly the same as every other time Big Tech CEOs have shown up on The Hill. The thing was, the CEOs were prepared. We knew they’d dodge questions and eschew responsibility for the most dangerous parts of their platforms and business models. Congress, however, seems to have learned nothing from their previous encounters with Big Tech, and even worse, they seem to not care to learn.

This is not the first time the U.S. Congress has let their social media and tech ignorance fly in the face of these men. In 2018, when Mark Zuckerberg was called before the Senate in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, politicians of both parties stepped in it. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) famously asked, “how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” With a rare show of emotion, Zuck responded, “Senator, we run ads.” But Senator Hatch was not alone. Senator Marcia Cantwell (D-WA), tried to coin a nickname for Peter Thiel’s Palantir, referring to it as “Stanford Analytica,” which often stumped Zuck. In July of 2020, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, this time with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook were back in front of the House Judiciary Committee for an anti-trust hearing, politicians fumbled over their own agendas and focused very little on any matters actually pertaining to anti-trust legislation.

Thursday’s hearing was no exception. The opening statements demonstrated that the committee was grossly ill-prepared for the matter at hand. You would have hardly known the hearing was pithily called “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.” While there were mentions of QAnon conspiracies and COVID mis-and-disinformation, most congressmen and women chose to pontificate on bias, the dangers of social media for children and teenagers, and the CEO’s personal opinions. “Do you think COVID vaccines work?” one democratic congressman asked. Why they were wasting time with personal opinions was never established. The fact the hearing’s title couldn’t even distinguish between misinformation and disinformation is unsettling. Misinformation refers to false rumors, insults, and pranks, whereas disinformation refers to deliberatively deceptive information, such as malicious hoaxes and propaganda. Both spread rapidly on social media. The committee was even unable to catch Zuckerberg in a lie, in which he claimed misinformation was not allowed in advertisements on their site.

It would be easy to fall into ageist accusations here. Most of Facebook’s users are younger than most of America’s senators. Yet, a Wall Street Journal analysis found that even the older senators post almost as much, if not more, than their younger counterparts. The truth, then, is much more damning: Many American politicians simply don’t care to learn.

The hearing felt like every congressman and woman had prepared by watching the overly simplistic documentary that was all the rage last fall, The Social Dilemma. Any Internet scholar will eschew this documentary for three main reasons: one, it plays up dystopian narratives about social media; two, zooms in on algorithms and platform design as the sole cause for social media’s problems (it’s much more complicated than that); and three, depends on dated tropes about social media addiction and mental harm, particularly for children.

If you watched Thursday’s hearing, all of the congressional questions seemed to be ripped straight from The Social Dilemma. The takes were overly simplistic and frankly, embarrassing, given the number of experts and public scholars there are doing research in these areas. While the excellent work of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Joan Donovan was cited at times by a few committee members, it was clear that most of Congress hadn’t done their homework. And while these hearings are always more about grandstanding than actual conversations, it was apparent that even the representatives’ bombastic speeches and questions weren’t based in any form of reality about how social media actually work.

Part of this problem was because of the narratives and ideologies represented. These politicians have an overly simplistic understanding of how social media work because they have an overly simplistic understanding of how media work. Their questions grant social media platforms immense power, and while social media platforms have power, they are not all-powerful. In phrasing their questions this way, representatives erase the agency of all platform users. Social media cannot make anyone do anything. For once, I agreed with something Mark Zuckerberg said when he said the problem wasn’t one platform but the entire media ecosystem — he’s right. Social media platforms are terrains for action, interaction, and communication. As I’ve written elsewhere, platforms like to be hands-off in moderating these terrains (or, “publics”). That’s not a good thing. Social media platforms’ hands-off approach, combined with politicians’ ignorance of the nuances of how media function with individuals and audiences, means we are going to keep running in circles on Big Tech regulation until those with the power to make decisions bother to educate themselves.

Any politician has a standing invitation to join my Social Media & Society class that I teach at the University of Alabama any time they want.

Politicians of both parties both agree on something for once — something needs to be done about Big Tech. The issue is, however, is that they view the problems Big Tech puts forth as fundamentally different. My rather simplistic summary is like so: Conservatives view social media as massively overreaching, harming children, and propagating anti-conservative bias with free speech violations. Liberals remain largely concerned with hate speech and similarly harmful practices, and they are also staunchly against existing self-regulation. If Congress can’t even agree on what should be done, these hearings will continue to just be political theater while the problems of misinformation, disinformation, and extremism continue to spread. As media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan has famously argued for over a decade, “the problem with Facebook is Facebook.” Politicians can’t even zoom out from the minutae to see this.

In an op-ed yesterday, in Slate, Jonathan L. Fischer proposed these hearings could improve if the CEOs were allowed to grill each other. While quite a suggestion, such a proposition sounds like it belongs straight in an Aaron Sorkin show. Argumentative competition for the stake of dramatics that will ultimately change hearts and minds? Aaron Sorkin couldn’t write it any better himself. The problem is, that’s not reality, and politicians already have a showboating and theatrics problem at these hearings. We shouldn’t encourage the CEOs to have the same.

One congressman told the CEOs that he had polled his constituents, and no one trusted these companies to do the right thing. That may be true. But if Congress doesn’t get their act together, and we continue to have more showboating and embarrassment, Big Tech will run unchecked, while politicians continue to spin endlessly.

Professor of digital media studies and technology. Into all things internet and dogs.

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