September 9, 2018

The Other Circus on Capitol Hill

By Melissa Ryan

This week the Senate Intelligence Committee (AKA the adults in the room, the ones who treat Russian interference seriously) held what is likely their final hearing on foreign election interference before the midterm elections. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the committee about what the tech companies have done/are doing to protect Americans from foreign influence operations in 2018 and beyond.

As is always the case with Senate Intel hearings we learned a lot, at least a lot about what Facebook and Twitter are doing because Google opted not to send their CEO and was represented by an empty chair. You can read my full recap of the hearing including a report card of previously raised concerns/questions from the committee that Sandberg and Dorsey addressed as well as questions still outstanding, over at Media Matters.

Unfortunately If you read any political news news about the hearing it was probably about this moment — which happened outside in the hallway between Alex Jones and Senator Marco Rubio.

Alex Jones taps Marco Rubio on the shoulder

I was following (and live-tweeting) the hearing so I actually didn’t see this exchange until hours later. But I wasn’t surprised by it. As I wrote earlier in the week previewing the hearing while Republicans on the Intelligence Committee tend to approach their work in a bipartisan manner, Republicans in general are more interested in riling up their base around the mythical social media censorship issue. In an impressive feat of counterprogramming, the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on “Twitter’s algorithms and content monitoring,” also with Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, on the same day!

Republicans are riling up their base around the mythical social media censorship issue.

Far-right personalities were in DC and on hand to do everything they could to derail the hearing, support the GOP’s “conservative bias” narrative, and keep the media’s focus away from foreign interference. As Daily Beast Reporter Will Sommer noted in addition to Jones Chuck Johnson, Laura Loomer was also in DC for the hearings. It was inevitable that one of them would pull a stunt.

When I finally watched the Rubio/Jones exchange hours later, I found myself relating to Rubio, even feeling bad for him. In the video he’s trying to keep the focus on foreign interference, attempting to deflect questions on social media censorship from a reporter, and then he’s forced to fend off Alex Jones who is coming at him with every ounce of crazy Jones can muster. Which is how I’ve felt for the past couple of years, trying to understand all of this while also having to fend off the shitshow that inevitably comes along with it.

Rubio and I don’t agree on anything politically but he’s always been one to watch on the Intelligence Committee. His own Presidential campaign was targeted by Russian operatives with both cyber attacks and most likely an online smear campaign. My suspicion is because of that Rubio understands the implications of continued foreign interference better than many of his colleagues. Whereas most Republicans dismiss concern about Russian interference as anti-Trump hysteria, Rubio knows firsthand how it feels when Russian operatives are targeting you. Which is probably why he was trying to get the reporter he was speaking to to focus on foreign interference rather than the GOP’s “conservative bias” obsession or Alex Jones.

Jones’ stunt clearly worked. Within minutes both Rubio and Jones were trending on Twitter and much of the coverage of the hearing focused on the exchange in the hallway. Rubio told reporters after the incident “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention. We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” Again, and I can’t believe I’m saying this twice in one post, I see where Rubio is coming from. His comments were like a shorter version of Data and Society’s The Oxygen of Amplification.

Twitter, has finally decided they’ve given Jones enough oxygen and banned both him and Infowars permanently from the platform late on Thursday afternoon. Officially the reason is that Alex Jones harassed reporter Oliver Darcy via his periscope account, but I have to wonder if the fact that Jones went after Dorsey in a similar way on the same day (with less success) was a factor.

meme of Jack Dorsey saying

Coming back to actual hearing, what happens next? Committee Chair Burr and Vice Chair Warner generally close these hearings by previewing what the committee plans to do next and what reports or followup we can expect. That didn’t happen this time. We have no indication that any further unclassified reports or recommendations will be forthcoming. Given that the election is almost two months away, that’s unsettling. But the reality is that with the current makeup in Congress (and the executive branch), the government isn’t going to do anything else. Providing oversight to our intelligence entities, pressuring tech companies in public hearings, and producing reports — that’s about as much as the Senate Intelligence Committee can do right now.

Hopefully, the next Congress makes protecting Americans from foreign influence operations and cyber attacks more of a priority.


This piece was originally published on September 9, 2018 in the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter. To read the full September 9 Ctrl Alt-Right Delete in which it appeared, click here.