Washington, D.C. is becoming a familiar place for Big Tech executives.
Representatives from Facebook, Google (and companies it owns, like YouTube), and Twitter have testified at Congressional hearings for a range of issues -- from data privacy, to election meddling, to their "filtering practices."
Now, as major executives from all three prepare to return to the U.S. Capitol to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), it begs the question: What does it mean for the rest of us?
Who's Testifying, and Why?
Buzzfeed first reported that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were due to testify before the SSCI on the weaponization of each platform to influence elections -- namely, the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That representation has been confirmed, though who will testify on behalf of Google -- if anyone -- is yet to be determined. The company reportedly proposed sending SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker, which was rejected by the committee. According to a media advisory issued this afternoon, Alphabet Inc. (Google's parent company) CEO Larry Page has been invited.
Source: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Media Advisory
It will be the first of two congressional appearances of the day for Dorsey, who's also confirmed to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that same afternoon on Twitter’s algorithms and content moderation.
In the months following Facebook's initial reveal that Russian actors were behind the 2016 platform abuse and election meddling, the company -- along with Twitter and Google, among others -- have discovered additional foreign, coordinated misinformation campaigns.
In July, Facebook said it removed 32 Pages and accounts -- eight Facebook Pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts -- for what it describes as "inauthentic behavior" that intends to mislead network users.
While it wouldn't confirm the origin of that activity, the company did remark that it showed similarities to the previously-announced Russian interference.
One day in August, both Facebook and Twitter came forward with announcements of coordinated misinformation campaigns on their respective networks -- this time, with origins in Iran. Two days later, Google came forward to say it had removed dozens of YouTube channels, blogs, and Google+ accounts for similar activity, also from Iran.
FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, is largely credited with the initial discovery of this activity, and has published a report on its findings.
In both coordinated campaign instances, government-backed organizations and actors from each country typically created inauthentic accounts, like Pages and YouTube channels. Those accounts were then used to distribute misinformation to promote a certain narrative, usually on divisive topics within the U.S.
“This is further evidence that foreign adversaries are actively using social media to divide Americans and undermine our democratic institutions," said SSCI Vice Chairman Mark Warner in a statement. "I look forward to questioning the leadership of Facebook, Twitter, and Google about this at the Intelligence Committee’s hearing on September 5th.”
Will Big Tech Be Regulated?
Regulation is an ongoing point of contention among lawmakers -- and not just when it comes to social media, though the divisiveness on the issue was particularly salient at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's two-day testimony before U.S. lawmakers.
At the time, it seemed that before any firm, sustainable outcomes along the lines of regulation could result from these ongoing incidents -- like the discovery of coordinated misinformation campaigns -- more hearings would take place. They have, and continue to do so.
Zuckerberg listens to opening remarks from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden on April 11, 2018. | Amanda Zantal-Wiener
The larger context is important, especially in light of the European Union's General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in May -- as well as California having passed its own privacy law in June. It reflects an era in which consumer demands for protection -- of personal data and election integrity alike -- are growing.
There may not ever be regulation that satisfies everyone -- though tech companies have reportedly been lobbying elected officials to pass privacy laws on their own terms.
Who Would Regulation Impact?
In a word, says HubSpot CMO Kipp Bodnar: "Everyone."
That may not have been the case only a few years ago, points out HubSpot VP of Marketing Meghan Keaney Anderson. Whereas sweeping regulation may have previously impacted only the tech giants themselves -- now, the organizations that use them for marketing could also feel ripple effects.
"In the past, marketers and business owners may have been able to let events like these glide by in the background," says Keaney Anderson. "But in a world where the lion's share of all internet traffic runs through just a few major platforms -- Google and Facebook, in particular -- succeeding means being both highly informed and highly adaptable to all the ways in which these giants are evolving."
"Succeeding means being both highly informed and highly adaptable to all the ways in which these giants are evolving."
- Meghan Keaney Anderson, HubSpot VP of Marketing
But back to Bodnar's point about regulation impacting everyone. When the platforms most in question -- Facebook, Google, and Twitter -- are widely used by businesses and consumers alike, it creates a cycle.
"It's likely that any platform changes designed to prevent election meddling would have an impact on the abilities of marketers executing ads for their products and services," he says. But at the same time, "These hearings also continue to fan the flames of public distrust in the quality of content on these platforms, making it harder for marketers to have their message heard."
In other words: Where there's distrust in the platforms, there's growing consumer distrust among the content appearing on them.
The long-term, potential impact of these ongoing hearings could be felt by the marketing and business community -- so take time to understand the possibilities.
"The biggest risk for marketers post-hearing is that these companies decide to change their algorithms further," says HubSpot VP of Marketing Jon Dick. "Any time this happens, marketers need to understand the impact of these changes, and adjust their content strategies accordingly."
Consider Facebook's January News Feed algorithm change, for example, to de-emphasize content from Pages, and promote more from friends and family.
Since then, according to one investigation, Facebook Page engagement has dropped by an average of 50%. But that data doesn't come without recommendations, or insights on which types of content continue to perform better than others.
And as Big Tech executives continue to be pressed to testify -- is there an end to these congressional appearances in sight? Probably not, says Bodnar.
"As for what's next -- I would imagine more hearings," he says. "But long-term, it seems like additional regulation is possible as these platforms continue to mature."