Facebook, YouTube, Twitter execs grilled by senators over addictive nature of their apps

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FBTWTRGOOGLU.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, speaks with U.S. Senator and ranking member Ben Sasse (R-NE) during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, in Washington, D.C., April 27, 2021.Al Drago | Pool | Reuters

Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube testified before Congress Tuesday about the ways their algorithms influence users and sometimes serve harmful misinformation.

The hearing before the the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy and technology highlighted a key feature of the social media platforms that has amplified some of the most serious harms lawmakers have been seeking to address through a wide swath of bills.

Algorithms are essentially the formula social media platforms use to decide what information to surface to people using an app or website. While both Facebook and Twitter have introduced more choice for users around whether they want to view a curated timeline of content on their feeds or not, algorithms can be a useful way to surface the most engaging content for any given user, based on their interests and past activity.

While that can work to provide a better user experience, it can also drive users to more polarizing content that reinforces their beliefs, rather than showing them content that challenges their viewpoints. Lawmakers have expressed concerns that algorithms can be used to drive users toward extremism or surface inaccurate information, especially about the coronavirus and vaccines.

One of the most frequent targets of lawmaker criticism when it comes to platform regulation has been Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the shield that protects the platforms from being held liable for their users’ posts. While Section 230 reforms were brought up a handful of times at Tuesday’s hearing, the discussion also called attention to what could perhaps be a more narrow way of reining in some of the most pervasive harms of internet platforms by focusing on transparency around their algorithms.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., the ranking member on the subcommittee, noted at the end of the hearing that he is still skeptical of such