In what’s becoming a rite of passage for Silicon Valley executives, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey headed to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, testifying to Congress that his company doesn’t censor users based on politics or target conservative voices.
Those in the gallery and watching at home didn’t glean much new from Dorsey’s testimony, however. Dorsey calmly reiterated much of what he’s already said in recent months — that Twitter doesn’t make decisions based on “political ideology,” as he said in his opening remarks. This comes after the company has been criticized from both the left and the right of late. Conservatives have accused Twitter of shadow-banning prominent right-wing voices — which Dorsey denied on Wednesday. At the same time, the social media platform has been skewered by many on the left for not booting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones last month, as did several other tech giants.
When asked why Twitter suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens for mimicking New York Times reporter Sarah Jeong’s contentious tweets, including “cancel white people,” Dorsey said it was a “mistake.”
He argued it wouldn’t make business sense for Twitter to jettison large swaths of Republicans, viewing the platform as a new-age “public square” where almost anything should be allowed to be said. “Impartiality is our guiding principle,” Dorsey added.
Dorsey also acknowledged the Twitter ecosystem can often be “toxic” for users, particularly women, as Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) put it. The exec said Twitter is focused on making the platform more hospitable right now, at the expense of all-out growth.
“Our singular objective as a company right now is to increase the health of public conversation, and we realize that will come at short-term cost,” Dorsey said.
The few moments that offered an opportunity for clarity didn’t reveal much. Dorsey declined to disclose how many content moderators the company has employed, saying he’ll follow up with “specific numbers” later. He was cagey when pressed by one representative to disclose his political affiliation, eventually conceding and saying he’s a registered Independent. One illuminating exchange did come when Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) pressed Dorsey on whether Twitter follows Russian laws mandating user data be stored in Russia. Dorsey at first said he’ll get back to Kinzinger on it, before saying, “We don’t have servers in Russia.”
Dorsey was often candid when talking about how Twitter can improve. On its arcane user guidelines, Dorsey said if you “sat down with a cup of coffee you wouldn’t be able to understand them.” He added Twitter’s verification process is “not where we’d like it to be” and needs work.
While several Republican urged Twitter to treat conservatives fairly, some Democrats said the questions over political bias were a waste of time. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) called the fixation on Twitter’s politics a “charade” at one point.
The day did have a farcical element to it. During a break in the Senate’s hearing earlier in the day, Jones — on hand in the audience — called Sen. Marco Rubio a “frat boy” and “snake.” Rubio, in return, dismissed Jones as a “clown.” Later, right-wing activist Laura Loomer interrupted the hearing, loudly shouting at Dorsey. She was drowned out by Rep. Billy Young (R-LA) suddenly bursting into an auctioneer’s call.
Ultimately, the daylong testimony yielded little insight. Much like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington last spring, our elected representatives lobbed complaints and demanded Twitter do a better job, whether its protecting conservatives or making its platform less toxic. But they also said they’d prefer Twitter handle its issues alone, preferring to bypass legislation that would restrict major social media companies. In other words, don’t expect Congress to do much about Silicon Valley’s headaches for the time being.