Bloviating conspiracy theorist Alex Jones whispered loudly in the front row with far-right media personality Jack Posobiec. Banned Twitter troll Chuck Johnson sit a few seats down giggling intermittently at who knows what. A human in a black shirt with the words “FBI used toddler for SEX” printed in red block publish meandered in and out of the room.
The internet’s biggest problems quite literally took a front-row seat at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday, where Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, updated lawmakers on how they’re addressing the issues of foreign influence and fake news that have beset their platforms. Dorsey followed up with a solo conference before the House Energy and Commerce Committee a few hours later.
But while many of Wednesday’s questions and answers echoed earlier statements by tech executives over the past year, the loom presence of personalities like Jones and Johnson served as a physical reminder of the still permeating danger of misinformation. Facebook and YouTube may have kicked Jones off their platforms( and tanked his traffic in the process ), but they still can’t seem to shake the toxicity he propagates and personifies.
‘There’s no clear and easy path forward.’
Senator Richard Burr
Members of Congress mostly ignored the sideshow swirling around the internet trolls in the audience, instead questioning Dorsey and Sandberg on the fine line between letting free speech and preventing harassment and disinformation campaigns. They pressed the executives on the steps their platforms have taken to identify foreign influence campaigns, and how they respond to requests from foreign countries like Turkey and Russia to suppress speech. In fact, Jones got only a glancing reference in the morning session, when Democratic senator Martin Heinrich asked members of the panel how they might deal with a US citizen who “says that victims of a mass shooting were actually actors, for example.” Jones has famously claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax.