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: Senators take social-media companies to task for their impact on national security

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A day after Twitter Inc. endured a public drubbing from a whistleblower about lax data-privacy standards, social media took another one on the chin in a congressional hearing Wednesday.

This time, executives from Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc.
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Alphabet Inc.’s
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YouTube, TikTok and, yes, Twitter
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were alternately grilled for undercutting national security as the federal government ratcheted up its latest political assault on some of tech’s biggest names from both sides of the ideological aisle.

“Sensational, provocative content sells ads” on your platform, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, said in one particularly sharp exchange with Chris Cox, Meta’s chief product officer. Far-right conspiracy group QAnon, for instance, spread its views on Meta largely unfettered for several years since 2017 to the point where 16% of Americans now believe in its “insidious theory,” Peters added.

After Cox said there was “no place for terrorism” and hate speech on Meta, and that the company “works hard to take that content down quickly,” Peters shot back: “I appreciate that you take action but it is after the fact.”

In another, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., pressed Meta, YouTube and Twitter on whether they “throttled back” what he deemed incendiary content during widespread protests in the summer of 2020. Each company said they applied the same standards to content regardless of their political stripe.

Several senators, including Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, asked if TikTok shared data with the Chinese government. The answer was no.

The tense exchanges between senators and four tech executives — Cox; Neal Mohan, chief product officer at YouTube; Vanessa Pappas, chief operating officer at TikTok; and Jay Sullivan, general manager of Twitter’s Bluebird consumer service — highlight rising tensions as the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission pursue antitrust actions against Big Tech while tech legislation wallows in the House and Senate.

On Tuesday, former Twitter security expert Peiter “Mudge” Zatko claimed the company put “profits over security” in damaging testimony that seemed to buttress billionaire Elon Musk’s attempt to back out of his proposed $44 billion deal to buy Twitter. Musk changed his mind, he said, out of concerns over fake accounts on the micro-blogging platform, as well as its handling of data security.

The antagonistic tenor of Wednesday’s hearing, like so many before it the past few years between the Beltway and Silicon Valley, reflect rising frustration as federal lawmakers try to hammer out laws that rein in the vast power and influence of some of the world’s most-valuable companies.

Absent tech legislation to rein in the likes of Alphabet, Meta, Apple Inc.
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and Amazon.com Inc.
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the Biden administration appears to be raising the heat. The Justice Department is considering antitrust lawsuits against Google and Apple as soon as this year, while the FTC has sued Meta and is investigating Amazon.

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