Algorithms were under fire at a Senate hearing on social media

Two serious men in suits talk amongst themselves.

Enlarge / Chairman Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) (right) speaks with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law hearing April 27, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on the effect social media companies’ algorithms and design choices have on users and discourse. (credit: Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images)

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, there was a striking change of pace—instead of grilling the floating heads of Big Tech CEOs, senators instead questioned policy leads from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube on the role algorithms play in their respective platforms. The panel also heard from two independent experts in the field, and the results were less theatrical—and perhaps more substantive.

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed concern over how algorithms are shaping the discourse on social platforms and how those same algorithms can drive users toward ever more extreme content. “Algorithms have great potential for good,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). “They can also be misused, and we the American people need to be reflective and thoughtful about that.”

The Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter execs all emphasized how their companies’ algorithms can be helpful in achieving shared goals—the companies are working to find and remove extremist content, for example—though all the execs admitted that de-radicalizing social media is a work in progress.

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