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Facebook, Twitter come under US pressure to make rules clearer

Both commit to be more open but mum on how to deal with misinformation

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At the latest hearings, Ms Sandberg and Mr Dorsey explained how their systems work to serve up, sort and block offensive content.

San Francisco

THE more US lawmakers learn about how Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc work, the more they want to know.

In the latest congressional hearings on misinformation and election interference, which featured first-time appearances by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey, the companies committed to trying to get better at explaining how their automated systems work to serve up, sort and block content on their social networks, and how they spot material that needs to be removed.

"There's a lot of confusion around our rules and around our enforcement," Mr Dorsey said during solo testimony at an afternoon hearing in the House focused on content decisions. "We intend to fix it."

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Facebook and Twitter have drawn vast audiences and built their businesses for years by touting themselves as open forums for debate and free expression, yet their revenue has mainly depended on opaque ad-targeting and data-collection practices.

As they work to become more open and satisfy lawmakers' demands, the companies are walking a fine line - pledging to improve transparency while stopping short of promising they can solve the problems that made the hearings necessary to begin with, such as abuse, misinformation and manipulation.

The companies have heard many of Wednesday's questions before, but several new lines of inquiry emerged. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked, for example, why the companies can't let users know when they're talking to a bot - an automated account - as opposed to a human, as a way to expose foreign activity. Senators wanted clarity on how the algorithms work, and why some content gets banned while other posts stay up.

In the Senate and House, lawmakers also sought insight into the number of human moderators the companies use, their processes for collaborating with each other or law enforcement, and definitions of abuse or fairness.

Facebook, which is more seasoned at answering such questions after CEO Mark Zuckerberg endured 10 hours of testimony over two days in April, had Ms Sandberg deliver some of his same talking points, such as explaining that the company has invested in hiring thousands of workers to improve its security procedures, including its content policies.

When questioned about some of the worst content Facebook has hosted, Ms Sandberg agreed with the senators that she was disappointed to find it on the social network. Ads that discourage people from voting have "no place on Facebook", she said, nor does discriminatory advertising, even though Facebook's systems can't guarantee they won't appear.

Mr Dorsey was less polished, and more willing to say his company is engaged in a grand restructuring with uncertain next steps for tackling a series of thorny problems. It would be difficult, he said, to reliably label bots because it's possible to program an account to act like a human.

Twitter sometimes fails to sufficiently prioritise the take-down of violent posts or tweets selling drugs, he added, a problem exacerbated by the company's focus on election meddling. It also needs to put less of a burden on the victims of hate and harassment to report abuse, he said, and all of the companies should have regular check-ins to share tips about foreign interference.

Mr Dorsey's talk of "massive shifts" punished Twitter's share price, which fell 6 per cent to US$32.73 on Wednesday. Facebook declined 2.3 per cent to US$167.18. Threats of government action may also have sent the shares tumbling, Twitter's in particular, as Mr Dorsey signalled he would be willing to have conversations with lawmakers on some regulations, such as those around bots, that the company might find difficult to comply with.

Lawmakers also raised the possibility of pushes for privacy legislation. And in a surprise move between the two hearings, the Justice Department issued a statement saying it is convening meetings with several state attorneys general "to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms".

The companies say they face robust competition, although antitrust scrutiny is one of their biggest fears. BLOOMBERG