There was a big technology hearing on Tuesday’s algorithm with more of the goal of a listening session than a free bite for everyone for the CEO-slamming sound – and in that sense it was successful in most cases. Based on the evidence from the policy, the hearing was led by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, rather than the chief executives of those companies.
The result was no surprise revelation for a few hours, but it was probably more effective than backing down from some of the most powerful men in the world to “come back to him” for their promise. At the hearing, lawmakers lamented the way content pumping algorithms through social media resonant chambers and platforms were able to fully reshape human behavior.
“This advanced technology involves algorithms designed to capture our time and attention on social media, and the results can be detrimental to our children’s attention, the quality of our public speech, our public health and even democracy itself,” the hearing said. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, said. Coons hit a cooperative note, observing that the algorithm drives innovation but their dark side comes with considerable expense.
None of this is new. But Congress is moving closer to a solution, one repeat technology hearing at a time. Tuesday’s hearing highlighted several areas of the bipartisan agreement that could determine the likelihood of the Democrats passing a technology reform bill briefly controlled by the Senate.
Coons expressed optimism that a “comprehensive bilateral solution” could be reached. What does it look like? Perhaps communication has changed under Section 230 of the Communications Act, which we’ve written about over the years. There was a connection.
At the hearing, lawmakers pointed to inherent flaws in how social media companies make money as the main issue. Instead of criticizing companies for certain failures, they mostly focused on the core business model from which many of the ills of social media arose. “I think it’s very important for us to leave behind the notion that there are really simple, quantitative solutions to complex, qualitative problems,” says Sen. Ben Sass (R-NE). He argued that since social media companies make money by drawing users to their products, any real solution would be to fully carry that business model.
“The business model of these companies is addiction,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) echoed, calling social media an “attention treadmill” by design. Former Googler and frequent technology critic Tristan Harris has not cut corners on how technology companies talk around that centrally designed tenet in his own testimony. “It’s almost like listening to a hostage in a hostage video,” Harris said, comparing the busy search business model to just offstage.