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Hey, Twitter and Facebook: Your wild west era's coming to an end

Lawmakers did their tech homework and came up with good questions for the top social media networks. The problem: not a lot of good answers.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were sworn in before their testimony to the Senate intelligence committee.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were sworn in before their testimony to the Senate intelligence committee.

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How do Facebook or Twitter know when a bot is signing up for an account instead of a real person?  

Why do victims of online harassment need to flag the problem instead of trusting the world's most-used social networks to weed out bad actors?   

Are conservative voices targeted more by censors on Facebook and Twitter?

Those are some of the questions Congress asked Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday. During two hearings, over nearly eight hours, lawmakers expressed concern and frustration with how tech companies act when it comes to stopping their platforms from being co-opted -- by foreign agencies looking to undermine our democracy, and by bad actors spreading hate, exploiting fears, feeding misinformation and engaging in personal attacks against opponents. 

"The key questions are, what do the administration, Congress, the tech industry and the American people need to know and understand about ongoing attacks by foreign governments?" said April Doss, chair of the cybersecurity and privacy practice at law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.

Sandberg and Dorsey acknowledged they were slow to recognize how their platforms could be manipulated and said they're working to figure out solutions. But they also said there are no easy fixes and they're still finding their way. Congress' response to that was pretty clear.

"The era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate intelligence committee's vice chairman. Congress, he said, will have to take action. "Where we go from here is an open question."

Now playing: Watch this: Senator Harris tries to get answers from Facebook's Sheryl...
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The tech industry finds itself under the microscope again, but this time it's up against lawmakers who aren't just scrutinizing its missteps but asking fundamental questions about how tech works. Legislators are challenging tech companies for not being transparent about their internal processes and about their decision-making around election tampering, fake news and the banning of account holders. Those issues are tough for tech CEOs to dismiss with a talking point.

"We're getting to the next layer down," said James Norton, a former deputy assistant undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

Unlike hearings over the past year in which lawmakers seemed clueless about social media and how Americans today use tech, Congress avoided cringe-worthy moments of gray-haired senators asking seemingly basic questions. (In April, Zuckerberg explained how he kept Facebook free: "Senator, we run ads.") Instead, lawmakers on Wednesday focused on issues like data privacy and election interference.

Part of the reason for the change is that Congress doesn't see tech as a wholly positive force in society, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy.

Congress isn't going to let up. Chester, Doss and Norton all said there's more to come. Lawmakers have already said they plan to schedule more hearings. And they may even subpoena Google after it decided not to send Alphabet CEO Larry Page or Google CEO Sundar Pichai to Washington to answer questions.   

But that doesn't mean we'll see new laws or regulations affecting the tech industry coming anytime soon, said Larry Downes, project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. "I don't expect much in the way of legislative action," he said. "There's no markup; there are no bills; there's nothing circulating."

What can we expect? Lawmakers asked executives to commit to vague ideas, like an "audit by Amnesty International," which Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette asked Dorsey to do (he agreed to it). New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone asked if Dorsey would commit to an independent third-party civil rights audit (he agreed to that too).

Theater on the sidelines

Alex Jones rants against Facebook and Twitter outside the Senate hearing.

Alex Jones rants against Facebook and Twitter outside the Senate hearing.

Getty Images

Congressional hearings are usually intended in large part as political theater, with one-liners, exhibits and stark images meant to produce good TV. But if these hearings were meant to rile up the public about the many failings of social media, they may have fallen flat.

Some of the most talked-about moments happened in the audience and the hallways. Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and voice behind the website Infowars, has been a topic of discussion in Silicon Valley over the last few weeks after several tech giants, including Apple, banned him for violating their community guidelines.

During the Senate hearing, Jones alternated between sitting in the audience, posing for photos and leaving for the hallways. During a short break, he ranted against Facebook and Twitter and got into a heated exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida. (A day later, on Thursday, Twitter permanently banned Jones and his Infowars account.)

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By comparison, the stuff going on inside the chamber was more low-key. By the end of the three-hour Senate hearing on Wednesday, more than half of the seats for the public were empty.

Too little too late?

Dorsey and Sandberg said their companies are moving as quickly as they can. Given that Twitter and Facebook are known as fast-moving, disruptive innovators, that sentiment didn't play well with lawmakers. Twitter's chief acknowledged as much.

"I know that's a frustrating answer," Dorsey said late in the House committee hearing in the afternoon, "because it's hard to predict."

Meanwhile, the challenges facing tech companies keep piling up. In July, Facebook said it discovered a new campaign of "inauthentic behavior" that involved dozens of Facebook pages and accounts, and $11,000 worth of ads, to promote political causes and potentially interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections this November. Last month, Facebook also said it was removing more than 600 "inauthentic" pages, groups and accounts with ties to Russia and Iran.

Twitter suspended 284 accounts with ties to Iran for "coordinated manipulation." Days later, Google said it was removing 58 accounts tied to Iran from YouTube and other Google services.

Congress on Wednesday applauded the tech giants for catching those disinformation campaigns before the elections, rather than being surprised by them after the fact. But some experts say the integrity of the 2018 election may be beyond saving.

"In some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn't take these issues seriously," former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos wrote shortly after leaving the company last month. "While this failure has left the US unprepared to protect the 2018 elections, there is still a chance to defend American democracy in 2020."

Which means that pressure on the tech industry to figure out a way forward isn't going to let up anytime soon. 

First published Sept. 6, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 3:05 p.m.: Adds that Alex Jones was permanently banned from Twitter.

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Infowars and Silicon Valley: Everything you need to know about the tech industry's free speech debate.