The hallway performance perfectly punctuated the hearing’s meek exploration of the calamity that is contemporary life on social media. The technology executives were answering, if weakly, for helping support websites like Infowars and crusaders like Jones. And if not Jones himself, then others who hide their deception more adeptly. The spat was a microcosm of the internet itself: A place where widespread adoption of platforms that give anyone unfettered access to almost everyone else, a place that gives people the sense that they deserve an audience, with anyone, on any topic, all the time.
The Senate hearing had trod familiar ground, with Congress trying to hold powerful tech companies accountable for the havoc they have wreaked on global democracy. Sandberg and Dorsey had agreed to come, at least—Google failed to send a senior representative, a rebuff for committee members, including leaders Richard Burr and Mark Warner, who issued sneers on the matter during the session. Rubio, too, took aim at Google, speculating that “maybe it’s ‘cause they’re arrogant,” before turning to Sandberg and Dorsey with questions about how social media, while “largely seen as a tool for incredible good,” also “can be manipulated.”
Sandberg defended Facebook’s efforts to curtail that manipulation, even while offering milquetoast responses to senators’ interrogation about its spread on the company’s platforms. When asked why the company would allow U.S. citizens to claim that victims of a domestic mass shooting were actually actors, Sandberg explained how Facebook used third-parties to verify facts and demoted content marked questionable. “We warn you if you are about to share it, we warn you if you have shared it,” she explained, adding that the service also shows related articles to surface “alternative facts.” That’s a phrase made famous by Kellyanne Conway, who used it as a euphemism for falsehoods. Whether or not Sandberg meant the term the way Conway did is immaterial—the point is that it had invaded her brain sufficiently that she uttered it in the first place. That’s the thing about bad ideas: They seep into the ground as they spread, poisoning it.
Dorsey, meanwhile, said Twitter aspired to be a “public square,” while also admitting that the company had been “unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems” it had encountered. He cut a strange demeanor throughout testimony, speaking in what seemed like an affectless manner. That, combined with his popped collar, long beard, and small nose ring gave him a kind of Civil War Boho sensibility. After the hearing, Dorsey tweeted an image of his heart rate during the day’s testimony, which peaked at 109, a downright athletic figure for someone being grilled before his government and the world.
The whole affair felt like the most apt, if tepid, essay on the relative powers of government and technology companies. Congress could summon tech’s leaders, but it couldn’t make them yield, as if subjects to kings. Google was brazen, not bothering to show up at all. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t deserve the praise they received, since Sandberg and Dorsey offered the minimum during their testimony. They took some lumps, admitted in a generally empty way to their faults, vowed to do better, and mostly just waited for the hearing to end so they could return to their lives.