Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey testified before Congress on Wednesday about their companies’ approaches to moderating online content and foreign interference in elections. Lawmakers in turn warned of regulation of social media companies that may come from Washington.
Drew Margolin, professor of communication at Cornell University, studies the way people communicate online and the role of accountability, credibility, and legitimacy within social networks. He says lawmakers in Washington looking to regulate social media companies should consider principles and prospective guidelines rather than a “whack-a-mole” approach.
“Lawmakers seemed to focus on unique, concrete instances where problems had been reported or uncovered — Russian interference, anti-conservative censoring, encouraging opioid sales. This whack-a-mole style is good for publicity, but efforts toward regulation will have to emphasize principles and hypotheticals — general rules the companies ought to follow—rather than specific, undesirable outcomes.
“For example, as Dorsey explained, Twitter’s automated techniques to detect trolls inadvertently slowed access to some Republican representatives’ accounts. This case may be inadvertent, but the likelihood is high that there will be overlap between political speech that is worth protecting, and offensive, triggering speech that needs suppressing. Algorithms can identify such statements, but they need a directive on which gets priority.
“Also, all parties seemed to accept that the complexity of automated algorithms means they cannot be examined for compliance, only tested for results. For example, Dorsey asserted that there was no bias because Twitter tested attention to tweets by all U.S. Congress Members, not because they inspected the code. This may suggest some things about how social media regulation would operate — with tests run after the fact rather than through prospective guidelines.”