Social Media: Pushing Boulders Up The Hill

Social Media: Pushing Boulders Up The Hill

Executives from Facebook and Twitter will appear on Capitol Hill today to face questions from lawmakers. Here’s a quick rundown of the most important issues that are likely to come up:


Election interference: In previous hearings, lawyers from Facebook, Google, and Twitter answered questions about how their websites were used to spread Russian misinformation during the 2016 election. This morning, with the November’s midterms looming, Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg (pictured above) and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey will face questions from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about what they are doing to avoid a repeat in 2018.

The companies will point to the hundreds of accounts they’ve shut down or suspended in recent weeks as evidence that they are committed to protecting the democratic process. They’ll talk about their efforts to improve transparency around who is taking out political ads and clamp down on hate speech and fake news. But on the question of how to prevent future meddling, the likely (unsatisfying) answer is that in a free, open, and increasingly connected society, bad actors will always find new ways to push propaganda. The best the tech industry and government can do is try to manage it.

The echo chamber: The tendency for people to seek out online news and views that merely serve to reinforce their own biases is another big issue facing the US and other democracies around the world. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey may be in for a particularly rough ride on this topic in a solo appearance before the House Energy and Commerce committee after lunch. Many Republicans – including President Trump – believe Twitter and other social networks suppress conservative viewpoints. For them, the main problem with the echo chamber is that it threatens free speech. For many Democrats, by contrast, the echo chamber is contributing to an unhealthy civil discourse. It’s hard for democracies to make well-informed decisions when facts get lost in partisan noise.

Dorsey will face tough questions from Republican committee members who know the bias issue resonates with their base. Democrats, meanwhile, will push the Twitter boss on the company’s policies for banning fake news and hate speech, while trying to paint their opponents’ questions about anti-conservative bias as an attempt to muddy the waters around the Mueller probe and other issues that are likely to hurt Republicans’ chances in the midterms. Dorsey will offer statistics, verbal assurances and technical explanations of how Twitter determines whose Tweets get read by whom, and how the platform tries to promote a “healthy public conversation” without favoring one viewpoint over another. But in an ironic turn of events that will surprise no one, committed partisans will only hear what they want to hear.

Regulation: Should internet platforms be regulated like publishing companies? Like public utilities? Or should they be broken up? Those are just a few of the ideas for tightening government control over the tech sector circulating on various sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill that may get airtime today. The drumbeat in favor of increased regulation is growing stronger. Recent headlines out of MyanmarLibya, and China have shown that the challenges facing tech giants go beyond foreign meddling in US elections, and touch on broader questions of how to make a powerful, virtual public square created by private sector tech companies safe for people around the world. Today’s hearings will shape how this important debate unfolds through the 2018 US midterms, and beyond.

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Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

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Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

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The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

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In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

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Nasal sprays, oral vaccines, and other new types of COVID-19 vaccines may be ready soon, according to Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization. She previews some of these needle-less vaccines and notes that the possibility of being able to store vaccines at room temperature could be a game-changer for vaccinating poorer nations. The advantage of nasal sprays, she explains, is that they "would generate local mucosal immunity in addition to systemic immunity." Dr. Swaminathan's conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 9. Check local listings.

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