A group of more than 30 democratic lawmakers led by Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) are calling on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to make substantive changes to their recommendation algorithms. In three separate letters addressed to the CEOs of those companies, the group makes a direct link to the January 6th US Capitol attack and the part those platforms played in radicalizing the individuals who took part in the uprising.
“On Wednesday, January 6th the United States Capitol was attacked by a violent, insurrectionist mob radicalized in part in a digital echo chamber that your company designed, built and maintained,” the letter addressed to Google and YouTube CEOs Sundar Pichai and Susan Wojcicki says.
A letter from some Congress members to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki flexes research on how YouTube's algorithms have promoted conspiracy theories and political extremism. Citing the Capitol attacks, they request changes to its recommendations systems. pic.twitter.com/eK2ThWvfPc
— Jennifer Elias (@jenn_elias) January 22, 2021
While the letters acknowledge the recent efforts Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have made to better moderate their networks, they conclude that alone isn’t enough to solve the problem of radicalization, particularly at the scale that those platforms operate. The lawmakers say all three companies have yet to address the “fundamental” flaws inherent to their recommendations algorithms.
“... Facebook, like other social media platforms, sorts and presents information to users by feeding them the content most likely to reinforce their existing political biases, especially those rooted in anger, anxiety, and fear,” the letter sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reads. “The algorithms Facebook uses to maximize user engagement on its platform undermine our shared sense of objective reality, intensify fringe political beliefs, facilitate connections between extremist users and, tragically, lead some of them to commit real-world physical violence, such as what we experienced firsthand on January 6th.”
The letters also point out that all three companies seem aware of the influence their recommendation algorithms have on people, yet have decided to do nothing about it. Subsequently, they recommend several measures each company should take. In the instance of YouTube, for example, they say auto-playing videos shouldn’t be the default, and that under no circumstances should the platform recommend someone watch a video about a conspiracy. They also urge the company to move away from a model that puts user engagement above all else.
“We are urging the CEOs of these large social media companies to make permanent and platform-wide changes to limit the frictionless spread of extreme, radicalizing content — something they’ve shown they are capable of doing but are consciously choosing not to,” said Representative Malinowski.
The group stops short of threatening regulatory action against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but legislation might not be that far behind. One of the lawmakers who endorsed the letters was Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), the chairman of the House Judicary’s antitrust subcommittee. Last fall, democrats on that panel published a 449-page report in which they said Congress should break up the Big Tech monopolies. In the lead up to the election, President Joe Biden said the US should repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make a company like Facebook more accountable for spreading disinformation.