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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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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