(New York, N.Y.) – The U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law held a hearing today on algorithmic amplification and its role in spreading extremist content on social media platforms. Among those testifying were Facebook’s Vice President for Content Policy Monika Bickert, Twitter’s Head of U.S. Public Policy Lauren Culbertson, and YouTube’s Director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the Americas and Emerging Markets Alexandra Veitch. During the hearing, company officials collectively minimized the impact their algorithms have on spreading extremist content and fell back on a familiar refrain of protecting free speech, going so far as to even claim that it’s not in their business interest to spread such content.
“Tech companies have a very simple business model: the more engagement their algorithms drive, the more money they make. Extremist content, terrorist content, or any other type of divisive content are the best generators for this,” said CEP Senior Advisor Dr. Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “At the end of the day, it’s not a question of how much or how little a company is doing to stop their algorithms from spreading bad content. It’s a question of whether they are willing to. What we have seen up until now, and will continue to see, suggests that so long as their business model directly contradicts this, we will not see any substantive changes.”
In one example from today’s hearing, YouTube touted changes it made in January 2019 that it claimed limited the spread of extremist content. However, in March 2020, Dr. Farid and other researchers at the University of California, Berkeley released a report titled, A Longitudinal Analysis Of YouTube’s Promotion Of Conspiracy Videos, that showed the proportion of conspiratorial recommendations is “now only 40 percent less common than when the YouTube’s measures were first announced.” After reviewing eight million recommendations over 15 months, researchers determined the progress YouTube then claimed in June 2019 to have reduced the amount of time its users watched recommended videos by 50 percent—and in December 2019 by 70 percent—did not make the “problem of radicalization on YouTube obsolete nor fictional.”
Relevant excerpts from the hearing may be found below:
Monika Bickert, Facebook: “The reality is that it’s not in Facebook’s interest—financially or reputationally—to push users towards increasingly extreme content. The company’s long-term growth will be best served if people continue to use and value its products for years to come. If we prioritized trying to keep a person online for a few extra minutes, but in doing so made that person unhappy or angry and less likely to return in the future, it would be self-defeating. Furthermore, the vast majority of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising. Advertisers don’t want their brands and products displayed next to extreme or hateful content—they’ve always been very clear about that. Even though troubling content is a very small proportion of the total content people see on our services (hate speech is viewed 7 or 8 times for every 10,000 views of content on Facebook), Facebook’s long-term financial self-interest is to continue to reduce it so that advertisers and users have a good experience and continue to use our services.”
Lauren Culbertson, Twitter: “Many of the questions we grapple with today are not new, but the rise and evolution of the online world have magnified the scale and scope of these challenges. As a global company that values free expression, we find ourselves navigating these issues amidst increasing threats to free speech from governments around the world. We strive to give people a voice while respecting applicable law and staying true to our core principles.”
Alexandra Veitch, YouTube: “In January 2019, we announced changes to our recommendations systems to limit the spread of this type of content. These changes resulted in a 70 percent drop in watch time on non-subscribed recommended content in the U.S. that year. We saw a drop in watch time of borderline content coming from recommendations in other markets as well. While algorithmic changes take time to ramp up and consumption of borderline content can go up and down, our goal is to have views of non-subscribed, recommended borderline content below 0.5 percent. We seek to drive this number to zero, but no system is perfect; in fact, measures intended to take this number lower can have unintended, negative consequences, leading legitimate speech to not be recommended. As such, our goal is to stay below the 0.5 percent threshold, and we strive to continually improve over time.”