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Facebook and Twitter Have a Message for Lawmakers: We’re Trying

Facebook and Twitter Have a Message for Lawmakers: We’re Trying

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.CreditCreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For months, Facebook, Twitter and Google have grappled with criticism over the misuse of their services by foreign operatives and the disproportionate influence their platforms have over people’s thinking.

On Wednesday, when Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, will appear in Washington to testify on those issues, they plan to answer lawmakers’ questions using two main tactics: a conciliatory and apologetic approach, as well as a rundown of the growing number of efforts that the companies have taken to deal with manipulation and disinformation problems.

“We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us,” Ms. Sandberg said in prepared testimony that was reviewed by The New York Times. “We’re getting better at finding and combating our adversaries, from financially motivated troll farms to sophisticated military intelligence operations.”

In testimony that was posted online on Tuesday, Mr. Dorsey said, “Twitter is approaching these challenges with a simple question: How do we earn more trust from the people using our service? We know the way to earn more trust around how we make decisions on our platform is to be as transparent as possible.”

The two executives, who will be making their first appearances before Congress, are expected to face tough queries on Wednesday morning at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about foreign manipulation of social media sites. Mr. Dorsey will then appear alone in the afternoon at a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing about content moderation on the sites.

The tech executives’ strategy of appeasing lawmakers will most likely meet resistance, as animus toward the companies has been whipped up further by President Trump, who has claimed that social media sites are deliberately suppressing some information. And with the midterm elections in November, Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey will be pushed to reveal whether the measures they have taken to prevent disinformation and manipulation are starting to work.

“This close to the election, the committee really wants the heaviest possible pressure on these companies to prevent a repeat of 2016,” said Paul Gallant, a tech policy analyst at Cowen and Co., referring to how Russia-backed operatives had used Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to stir discord before the presidential election two years ago.

Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had also invited Larry Page, chief executive of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to testify on Wednesday. But the company declined to send Mr. Page and instead submitted written testimony from Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Mr. Walker tried to distinguish Google from Facebook and Twitter as less problematic and vulnerable to foreign meddling.

“While the nature of our services and the way we run our advertising operations appears to have limited the amount of state-sponsored interference on our platforms, no system is perfect — and we are committed to taking continuing action to address the issue,” Mr. Walker wrote in the post.

The appearances of Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey in Washington mark the third time in less than a year that top social media executives from Silicon Valley have come to Capitol Hill to defend their companies.

Last November, the top lawyers for Facebook, Google and Twitter testified on Russian influence campaigns on their platforms before the 2016 presidential election. In April, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, testified in back-to-back privacy-related hearings after revelations the company’s user data had been shared with a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, without user consent. Lawmakers have also held other hearings related to alleged content bias on social media.

Since then, Facebook, Google and Twitter have tried to demonstrate their efforts to fight misinformation and foreign influence by hiring thousands of content moderators, as well as developing tools with artificial intelligence and other technologies to more quickly identify and root out fake accounts and foreign-backed influence campaigns.

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In prepared testimony, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said, “We know the way to earn more trust around how we make decisions on our platform is to be as transparent as possible.”CreditMike Cohen for The New York Times

“When we find bad actors, we will block them,” Ms. Sandberg said in her prepared testimony. “When we find content that violates our policies, we will take it down. And when our attackers use new techniques, we’ll share them to improve our collective defense.”

The testimonies of Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey are expected to draw wide interest, just as Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress was considered must-see TV by tech industry officials, regulators and others.

Ms. Sandberg is a veteran of Washington politics. She was the chief of staff to the former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers during the Clinton administration, and now oversees policy for Facebook, among other things.

Mr. Dorsey, known for his taciturn style, has been on a media blitz in recent weeks as Twitter has tried to shore up its reputation. He is not well known in Washington and will have to defend Twitter from accusations of political bias in a manner that doesn’t further rile lawmakers.

Both executives have been preparing for the hearings for several weeks. They each have been coached by company lawyers and Facebook and Twitter’s Washington policy staffs on what questions specific lawmakers may ask and which ones may use the hearings to level new accusations or threats of regulations, according to people involved in the preparations, who were not authorized to talk publicly. Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey have been advised to appear contrite, to be direct with their responses and to be patient if interrupted, the people said.

Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey met with several lawmakers on Tuesday, ahead of the hearings. Both met with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Mr. Burr, as well as Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, according to committee aides.

The Senate hearing wasn’t expected to yield many new revelations on foreign interference, and some lawmakers were expected to veer into other topics. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, would most likely raise concerns of content biases by social media sites that stifle conservative views, according to committee aides. And Mr. Wyden was expected to focus on online privacy and the potential need for regulations.

In particular, lawmakers may press the executives on how vulnerable their sites are ahead of the midterms.

Senior Trump administration intelligence officials have warned of the threat of foreign interference. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have recently identified foreign influence campaigns linked to Iran and Russia, though they also said they could not conclusively determine that those were meant to interfere in the midterms.

The companies also plan to highlight a gap between themselves and law enforcement officials on battling foreign meddling.

“Our understanding of overall Russian activity in 2016 is limited because we do not have access to the information or investigative tools that the U.S. government and this Committee have,” Ms. Sandberg said in her written remarks.

Though Google won’t have an executive present, lawmakers, including Mr. Warner, were expected to criticize the company for declining an invitation to testify.

And Mr. Dorsey, in his marathon day of hearings, will seek to quash the growing accusations that his company suppresses conservative views.

In recent months, Mr. Dorsey has met privately with Republican and Democratic politicians and pundits. Last month, before agreeing to testify in the House hearing, he had a call with the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, and the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, to allay their fears of anti-conservative bias on the site.

The lawmakers still threatened to subpoena Mr. Dorsey if he didn’t agree to testify.

Follow Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel on Twitter: @ceciliakang and @sheeraf.

Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel reported from Washington. Kate Conger contributed reporting from San Francisco.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Facebook And Twitter To Congress: We’re Trying. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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