Morning Brief

Tech CEOs Face Congressional Grilling

January’s Capitol riot has sharpened congressional focus on social media companies like never before, and regulation is coming.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before Congress.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears on a monitor as he testifies remotely on Capitol Hill on Oct. 28, 2020. Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Big Tech CEOs face congressional grilling, North Korea test launches two missiles, and a giant container ship is still blocking the Suez Canal.

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Congress Questions Tech CEOs on Disinformation

The CEOs of the world’s largest social media companies will answer for the role their platforms play in promoting extremism and spreading disinformation before a congressional joint subcommittee hearing today in Washington. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Google’s Sundar Pichai are all set to appear.

Lawmakers are likely to take the executives to task on COVID-19 misinformation and the fallout from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as they seek regulatory approaches to hold the tech giants accountable for the content they host.

The hearing comes as congressional leaders have become increasingly vocal about the need to regulate Big Tech. “We are done with conversation,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, chairwoman of one of the subcommittees holding today’s hearing, said at an event Monday. “We are now moving ahead with regulation and legislation, and that is inevitable.”

Big spenders. But as those calls increase, so have attempts by some tech companies to set the agenda. In 2020, Facebook’s total spending on congressional lobbying ranked sixth out of all companies and trade associations (only one other tech firm made the top 20—Amazon, in eighth place).

Blind spots. While Facebook has improved its international monitoring—it just uncovered a Chinese phishing scam designed to plant malware on the devices of Uyghur activists—the company can still have a blind spot when it comes to the United States. That’s partly a political issue: Misinformation from far-right affiliated pages gets far more engagement on the platform than content of other political stripes, according to a study by Cybersecurity for Democracy, and Facebook has been loath to risk political fallout from moving too quickly against such groups in the past.

As Bharath Ganesh wrote in Foreign Policy after the Capitol insurrection, governments must start to treat far-right groups as a genuine terrorist threat and put pressure on tech companies by targeting advertising as well as content. “Lawmakers should consider applying strict financial punishments to companies for allowing racism, hate, misogyny, and white supremacist content to be propagated through their advertising markets,” he argued.

No principles, no regulation. Vivian Schiller, a former media and tech executive who is now the executive director of Aspen Digital, recently drafted a series of recommendations for the Biden administration on tackling misinformation on social media platforms. She told Foreign Policy that although companies can do more to police misinformation on their platforms, tech firms still have to address the underlying question of what gets targeted and removed.

“I do think content moderation could be better and will be better, but you can’t make moderation better until you have some core principles on what a healthy platform looks like,” Schiller said. “You can’t make quick moderating decisions or improve your systems to be able to take down bad content until there is a cohesive point of view on what constitutes bad content.”

“That’s a bigger issue before we talk about individual posts slipping through the cracks. What is the worldview that these platforms are going to embrace when it comes to harmful content or when it comes to false content? That has to come first.”


What We’re Following Today

EU Council convenes. EU heads of state and governments meet today for a two-day summit, with the bloc’s slow vaccine rollout as well as plans for a digital travel pass high on the agenda. U.S. President Joe Biden was invited to call in to the proceedings, likely before he hosts his first formal press briefing as president at 1:15 p.m. ET. 

Another missile launch. North Korea fired two ballistic missiles on Thursday, U.S. and Japanese officials reported, its second missile test in less than a week after it launched non-ballistic missiles on Sunday. “The first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region and violates U.N. resolutions,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in reaction to the launch. The missiles travelled roughly 260 miles before entering the Sea of Japan in an area outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Suez Canal blocked. An operation to free a giant container ship stuck in the Suez Canal has entered its third day as authorities consider alternative plans to dislodge the vessel. Bloomberg calculates that the Ever Given is currently blocking roughly $9.6 billion worth of shipping traffic. The ship ran aground on Tuesday after high winds overpowered the vessel, according to the Ever Given’s parent company.


Keep an Eye On

Harris to handle border policy. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has been tasked with leading diplomatic outreach to Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras as part of U.S. efforts to address a recent increase in migrants attempting to enter the United States along its southern border. The number of migrants detained by U.S. authorities at the Mexican border steadily increased over the course of 2020 and is coming close to matching a 2019 surge. Harris’s assignment reflects a growing foreign-policy portfolio for the vice president, which has included one-on-one calls with the leaders of Australia, Canada, France, and Israel.

Slovakia’s PM under pressure. Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic is under increasing pressure to resign as a political crisis ignited by the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines from Russia intensifies. On Tuesday, Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova joined calls for his resignation, saying it was “inevitable.” Six cabinet ministers have resigned, including two on Wednesday, after Slovakia agreed to buy 2 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, going against the wishes of Matovic’s coalition partners and, like Hungary, before the European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine. Matovic has said he would consider resigning if he can remain in the cabinet, but his coalition partners have rejected that idea.


Odds and Ends

Bottles of wine suspended in space for a year still taste excellent, some very fortunate wine experts have reported, as the Institute for Wine and Vine Research in Bordeaux, France, has begun to study the effects of weightlessness on wine and its grapevines.

Twelve wine bottles, along with 320 grapevine snippets, were sent to the International Space Station last year to study the effects of aging and stress, as the Bordeaux region attempts to come to grips with the effects of climate change. The vines were found to have grown even faster in the confines of the space station than their counterparts back on Earth.

Wine expert Jane Anson said she could notice the difference in a blind taste test pitting an earthbound bottle of Petrus Pomerol (retail price around $5,900) against its extraterrestrial counterpart. “The one that had remained on Earth, for me, was still a bit more closed, a bit more tannic, a bit younger. And the one that had been up into space, the tannins had softened, the side of more floral aromatics came out,” Anson told the Associated Press.


That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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