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The Senate Intelligence Committee has been grilling Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google lately, to investigate the extent of foreign influence in the 2016 presidential election, and today was Twitter's turn, in the form of its CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey.

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According to the Washington Post, Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) framed the hearing with optimism about social media's long-term future, but added: "[W]e've also learned about how vulnerable social media is to corruption and misuse. The very worst examples of this are absolutely chilling and a threat to our democracy."

Vice chair Mark Warner (D-VA) asked Dorsey if Twitters users had a right to know if they were interacting with a bot, and the CEO appeared to choose his words carefully: "We can certainly label and add context to accounts that come through our API. Where it becomes a lot trickier is where automation is actually scripting our website to look like a human actor. So as far as we can label and we can identify these automations we can label them -- and I think that is useful context."

Dorsey added that Twitter was using computers powered by artificial intelligence to identify bots by their behaviors on the social network, rather than by what country the account user appeared to be connecting from, or other more traditional methods of spotting fakery.

Why is Twitter in the hot seat?

Twitter has been under pressure to remove accounts operated by prominent neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists, but progress has been slow. Part of this is due to potential legal issues relating to free speech, but Twitter itself is also deeply rooted in anti-establishment sensibilities, going back to its original founding members.

Dorsey initially rejected calls to remove conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on the grounds that, in Dorsey's view, Jones had not violated Twitter's terms of service.

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Jones received a one-week ban last month, but according to the Wall Street Journal, Dorsey overruled his staff when they proposed making the ban permanent. Jones has already been banned from YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify, but he was spotted in the audience behind Dorsey during today's Senate hearing.

Twitter has been deleting and suspending a large number of suspected bot accounts over the last several months, including a wave of several million per day in July. One study in March estimated that up to 48 million accounts were operated by bots that were producing up to 15 percent of all tweets on the network. Twitter itself estimated in February that more than 27 million accounts were fake. At the time, the network claimed 319 million monthly active users.

In response to Senator Warner's question, Dorsey expanded upon the notion of publicly tagging suspected bot accounts: "It's an idea that we have been considering over the past few months. It's really a question of the implementation, but we are interested in it. And we are going to do something along those lines."

The takeaways

  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing in Washington, D.C., today about foreign political influence on his social network, and Dorsey said that the company was considering adding public badges to accounts that were suspected of bot activity.
  • Twitter has been under pressure to clean up the fake accounts controlled by bots; in February, the company estimated that over 27 million of its accounts were fake, and an independent study said that this number could be as high as 48 million. Twitter counted 319 million monthly active users at the time.

See also

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.