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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Social media platforms take a back seat at Jan. 6 hearings — for now

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Monday! It's official: tech antitrust has hit the big time. Send tips to: cristiano.lima@washpost.com.

Below: Amazon is aggressively opposing unionization efforts as it tries to overturn a successful union vote, and a Google engineer says its AI has come to life. First:

Social media platforms take a back seat at Jan. 6 hearings — for now

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have been accused of contributing to the spread of false election fraud claims and helping to foment violence leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

And the committee investigating the insurrection has quietly dialed up efforts to collect information on how platforms influenced the attack, canvassing researchers for data and findings on the matter and staffing up its investigative team with experts, as The Technology 202 reported.

But as the public phase of the panel’s probe kicks into high gear, the focus on those companies appears to be limited. 

Social media was largely an afterthought at the Jan. 6 committee’s first prime-time hearing Thursday, which focused broadly on charges that former president Donald Trump incited the attack and that extremist groups including the Proud Boys led the charge to carry it out. 

While Trump’s tweets were repeatedly cited, “social media” was only mentioned twice, and no major platforms were singled out by name.  

“We’ve obtained substantial evidence showing that the president’s December 19th tweet calling his followers to Washington on January 6th energized individuals from the Proud Boys and other extremist groups,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in one passing mention. 

None of the panel’s next five hearings appear to be overtly focused on how tech companies may have amplified disinformation or dangerous material. 

Instead, the series of sessions will focus efforts by Trump to “replace” and “pressure” top officials in his administration and at the state level in a bid to overturn the election, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.), the panel’s vice chair, said while previewing upcoming hearings Thursday. 

Monday’s hearing, which Cheney said will focus on Trump’s “massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information” — a push he carried out by using his powerful digital megaphones — is perhaps the most likely session to broach the subject. 

During a call with reporters Sunday, senior committee aides who spoke anonymously to preview the hearing said it will be “focused on the ‘big lie’ ” and Trump’s “decision to push that lie to millions of supporters.” Trump notably used his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to spread false claims of widespread voter fraud and question the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory. 

But there was no mention of social media platforms on the call. And none of the five witnesses the panel announced Sunday are directly tied to social media companies. 

The session may still delve into the topic. Former city commissioner of Philadelphia Al Schmidt has decried how misinformation stoked confusion about the voting process in his state. In 2020, Trump used his Twitter account to accuse Schmidt of refusing to look into his voter fraud claims. A number of “#StopTheSteal” posts alleging fraud in Philadelphia went viral on Election Day. 

Even if the panel does not delve deep into the role social media platforms played in the attack in its initial hearings, it does not mean it won’t return to the topic down the line. 

The committee could still hold additional hearings that may zero in on the topic more directly, and it could make a more prominent appearance in any reports the panel issues. 

When it was created, the panel was tasked with investigating “influencing factors that contributed to the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and how technology including online platforms” may have “factored into the motivation, organization, and execution.”

The committee dramatically escalated those efforts in January, accusing Facebook, Twitter and Google of not cooperating with their requests for information and issuing subpoenas that they demanded the companies comply with. 

“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps — if any — social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds to radicalizing people to violence,” Thompson said at the time.

Spokespeople for the panel did not return requests for comment on what extent the companies have complied with those subpoenas.

Our top tabs

Amazon continues to fiercely oppose unionization, workers say

Amazon workers are accusing the company of calling the police, firing workers and cracking down on unionization efforts in the wake of a historic win for organizers on Staten Island this year, Caroline O’Donovan reports. “Amazon has been accused of illegally firing workers in Chicago, New York and Ohio, calling the police on workers in Kentucky and New York, and retaliating against workers in New York and Pennsylvania, in what workers say is an escalation of long-running union-busting activities by the company,” Caroline writes.

Amazon's efforts appear to be a signal that the country’s second-largest private employer will continue to fiercely oppose union momentum. Amazon is set to present its objections to a historic Staten Island unionization vote at a hearing today.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement that the allegations “are without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the appropriate process.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Google’s AI has come to life, according to an engineer who works at the company

Google engineer Blake Lemoine talked to Google’s AI chatbot generator LaMDA and argued to the company that LaMDA is sentient, Nitasha Tiku reports. LaMDA is “based on its most advanced large language models, so called because it mimics speech by ingesting trillions of words from the internet,” Nitasha writes.

Google Vice President Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Head of Responsible Innovation Jen Gennai dismissed Lemoine's claims, and he went public.

“Google put Lemoine on paid administrative leave for violating its confidentiality policy,” Nitasha writes. “The company’s decision followed aggressive moves from Lemoine, including inviting a lawyer to represent LaMDA and talking to a representative of the House Judiciary Committee about what he claims were Google’s unethical activities.” Google spokesperson Brian Gabriel said a team from the company “has reviewed Blake’s concerns per our AI Principles and have informed him that the evidence does not support his claims."

“Google put Lemoine on paid administrative leave for violating its confidentiality policy,” Nitasha reports.

Silicon Valley job cuts prompt predictions of economy-wide recession

Venture capitalists, start-ups and established tech companies are firing workers and cutting investment, leading to predictions that a U.S. recession is coming, Gerrit De Vynck and Rachel Lerman report. Tech companies are a “leading indicator” for the economy, said UCLA economics professor Till von Wachter.

However, “not everyone sees tech as a bellwether for the whole economy,” Gerrit and Rachel write. “Instead, the tech industry may have further to fall than other sectors simply because it received more funding, pumping up valuations to levels that the companies didn’t deserve.”

Rant and rave

Facebook parent Meta is reviewing the extent to which staffers at the company worked on outgoing chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's personal projects and work for her foundation, the Wall Street Journal reported. Here's more from Deepa Seetharaman, who wrote the Journal story with Emily Glazer:

The Obama White House's chief digital officer, Jason Goldman:

Writer Teddy Schleifer:

Workforce report

Chris Smalls’s Amazon uprising and the fight for a second warehouse (Greg Jaffe)

Google agrees to pay $118 million to settle pay equity suit (Bloomberg)

Competition watch

Apple, Google face new antitrust investigations in U.K. (Wall Street Journal)

Dutch watchdog says Apple to offer other payment methods in dating apps (Reuters)

Inside the industry

Wickr, Amazon’s encrypted chat app, has a child sex abuse problem — and little is being done to stop it (CNBC)

Amazon is flying internet influencers to luxurious resorts in bid for social media clout (CNBC)

Meta scrutinizing Sheryl Sandberg’s use of Facebook resources over several years (Wall Street Journal)

Hill happenings

Apple CEO Tim Cook pushes for privacy legislation 'as soon as possible' after visit to Congress (CNBC)

Trending

She tracked her boyfriend using an AirTag — then killed him, police say (Lindsey Bever)

Inside the Pentagon’s long debate: Do gamers make good soldiers? (Pranshu Verma)

Daybook

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on privacy legislation on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.
  • The German Marshall Fund of the United States hosts an event on algorithmic auditing on Wednesday at 11 a.m.

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