Facebook, YouTube Execs Defend Algorithms, Downplay 'Extremist' Content, 'Shadow Banning'

Some of Silicon Valley top algorithm experts testified Tuesday in front of bipartisan members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tasked with defending Big Tech from accusations it capitalizes on "short-term rage" and their role in society's increasing polarization.

Democratic Delaware Senator Chris Coons, chairman of the committee, opened Tuesday's "Algorithms and Amplification" hearing by asking "what happens when algorithms become so good at showing you content" that users spend hours tuned into frequently hateful or outright false messaging. Executives from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube consistently defended the use of algorithms and other social media platform technology as tools of "open public conversation." But GOP Senator Ben Sasse joined committee members in questioning the Silicon Valley companies on whether they're capitalizing off "misinformation" and users' "narcissistic" impulses.

"People are pretty good at short-term rage, and the product capitalizes on that, doesn't it?" Sasse asked Twitter's head of U.S. public policy, Lauren Culbertson.

"The reality is the loop between the products that are being produced and the way we as narcissistic sinners consume it, is it or is it not true that when somebody tweets something is really anger-invoking and outrageous, and it goes viral, but then two hours later they were wrong and correct it—the corrections is only 3 percent of the traffic of the original outrageous, false thing?"

The Facebook, Twitter and YouTube representatives responded to a series of questions from Republican committee members on the use of "shadow banning" and allegations of potentially partisan censorship. Multiple members from both parties challenged the executives on profiting off of "extremist" content and allowing deliberately "fake" claims to be made in which users rarely see follow-up apologies or fact checks.

Alexandra Veitch, director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Americas and Emerging Markets for YouTube, a subsidiary of Google and Alphabet Inc., reiterated that their company wants to build long-term trust and relationships with users as well as advertisers.

"Misinformation is not in our interests, our business relies on the trust of our users and our advertisers advertise on single-pieces of content," she said at Tuesday's hearing. She touted the benefits of user preference tools aimed at cutting back "engagement and addiction" to their platforms including timers, the ability to turn "auto-play" off and "take-a-break" reminders.

Coons acknowledged at the outset of Tuesday's hearing that algorithms have had tremendous benefits outside of social media platforms and also help both users and the tech companies in terms of usage.

"With trillions of pieces of content on each platform it makes sense that they should have a way to help us sift through what they think their users are looking for and what we are actually seeking," Coons said during the opening statement. "But what happens when algorithms become so good at amplification, at showing you content that a computer thinks you like, that you, your kids spend hours…[watching content] hyper-tailored to you, your talents exposed to ideas you might find disagreeable, what happens when they amplify content that might be popular but is either hateful or just plain false?"

Coons quoted Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, who previously said, "When left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with sensationalist and provocative content which can undermine the quality of public discourse and lead to civic polarization."

Newsweek reached out to Sasse and Coons for additional remarks Tuesday afternoon.

This is a breaking story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

senate committee social media algorithms
Lauren Culbertson, head of US public policy at Twitter Inc., testifies virtually during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, at the U.S. Capitol on April 27. The committee will hear testimony about social media platforms' use of algorithms and amplification. AL DRAGO / Staff/Getty Images