US senators: Social media giants let algorithms 'run wild'

Lawmakers on tech subcommittee call for stronger rules on privacy and use of personal data for recommended content.

    Political leaders in the United States have begun to escalate calls for more regulation of big tech companies [Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]
    Political leaders in the United States have begun to escalate calls for more regulation of big tech companies [Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

    A Senate panel in the United States Congress has questioned how major social media companies like Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc (the owner of Google) use algorithms and artificial intelligence to serve up new content to keep users engaged.

    The Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and Innovation (which is overseen by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation) heard on Tuesday from researchers who criticised the use of artificial intelligence to select content for users.

    Senators said much of the automatically suggested content consists of conspiracy theories, partisan viewpoints and misleading information on Facebook, Google's YouTube and elsewhere.

    Congress has spent months debating new privacy protections for online users that could restrict the ability of social media companies to use personal data to make content recommendations.

    Senator Brian Schatz, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said social media companies use "algorithms that feed us a constant stream of increasingly more extreme and inflammatory content".

    He noted that companies must be more transparent and accountable for "amoral" algorithms and said the issue is the lack of human judgment.

    "If YouTube, Facebook or Twitter employees, rather than computers, were making the recommendations," Schatz said, then they would make better decisions. "Companies are letting algorithms run wild and only using humans to clean up the mess."

    'Harmful misinformation'

    Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, agreed with Schatz about the need for better controls and added that social media companies are managing algorithms "in secrecy".

    Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn wrote to YouTube's CEO this month, raising concerns that the YouTube "recommendation mechanism continues to actively and automatically push sensitive videos involving children".

    Maggie Stanphill, director of User Experience at Google, said the company has listened to concerns from senators about its YouTube recommendations system.

    As a result of YouTube reducing content recommendations that spread "harmful misinformation", the company said that the "number of views this type of content gets from recommendations has dropped by over 50 percent in the US".

    Senator John Thune, a Republican who chairs the tech subcommittee, said the "powerful mechanisms behind these platforms meant to enhance engagement also have the ability – or at least the potential – to influence the thoughts and behaviours of literally billions of people".

    Tristan Harris, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology and a former Google design ethicist, said social media companies have too much power and use tools akin to slot machines to keep people engaged.

    "You have a supercomputer pointed at your brain," Harris said. "It's a race between Facebook's voodoo doll - where you flick your finger, and they predict what to show you next - and Google's voodoo doll."

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency