Sheryl did fine. Jack did quite well, all things considered. Google’s empty chair took a beating. And internet trolls showed up in real life to show what internet trolling looks like in real life.
And that’s pretty much all you need to know about what happened when Silicon Valley came to D.C. today.
In theory, this was a chance for Congress to talk to/grill top execs from Facebook and Twitter about how to fix or help their platforms. In reality, it was a show, as all Congressional hearings are. If lawmakers are really going to regulate Big Tech, the important stuff isn’t going to happen in public.
But fine! Let’s review the show, which took place in two acts: A visit from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and an empty chair unoccupied by a Google executive at the Senate Intel Committee in the morning, and a solo performance by Dorsey in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the afternoon.
This was pretty good! Plenty of decent questions, mostly focused on Facebook’s and Twitter’s efforts to keep Russia, Iran and others from disrupting elections and causing other problems.
A couple of senators, notably Republican Tom Cotton, pushed both companies about whether they were sufficiently “American,” which could be a genuinely interesting question for an internet company but was presented as a simple one with a single correct answer. Democrat Kamala Harris pushed Sandberg about how much money Facebook made from Russian cloak-and-daggery during the 2016 election. Sandberg gave the testimonial equivalent of the shruggy emoji.
But generally, if you watched some or most of this session, you came away feeling that U.S. lawmakers might be able to figure out constructive ways to help U.S. internet companies solve complex problems. It was a pretty nice feeling.
Not surprisingly, a tedious exercise that stretched on for hours. Most of the committee had moved on to other things before it ended.
Poor @jack is still testifying. But if you're in the DC area and you hurry you could get very, very good seats. pic.twitter.com/vhQ12Rq0aH— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) September 5, 2018
Republicans asked, over and over, whether Twitter’s programs, policies and employees favored liberal causes and politicians over conservative ones. Not at all, Dorsey patiently answered, over and over.
And Democrats split their time between complaining about other issues they wished the hearing focused on, like Twitter’s failure to keep abusive users off the platform, and the fact that the entire hearing seemed ginned up as a political exercise to help Republicans in the fall elections.
If you watched any of this, there’s no way you think U.S. lawmakers are going to do anything about U.S. internet companies, or anything else.
Sandberg, to no one’s surprise, did just fine with her Senate session, offering a combination of straightforward yeses, noes and we’ll get back to yous. Dorsey, who showed up with a full Jack beard, no tie and an iPhone that he used to both read and tweet from during his testimony, also did quite well. Particularly in the grueling second session, where he patiently explained how his platform worked, oftentimes to people who didn’t seem to care.
And even people who didn’t listen to Dorsey at least paid attention to him. Rep Joe Barton, who refused to believe Dorsey’s assertion that Twitter wasn’t biased against conservatives like himself, was pretty impressed with his look:
Barton: “I don’t know what a Twitter CEO should look like, but you don’t look like [what] a CEO of Twitter should look like, with that beard …”
Dorsey: “My mom would agree with you.”
Meanwhile Google, which didn’t send an exec — Kent Walker, the SVP they did offer, wasn’t considered high-level enough by committee organizers — was roasted in its absence. “I’m deeply disappointed that Google — one of the most influential digital platforms in the world — chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee,” Sen. Mark Warner said in his opening statement. Several of his colleagues piled on throughout the morning.
A contingent of alt-right social media agitators, including Alex Jones and Jack Posobiec, showed up in the audience for the morning session. Then Jones interrupted Sen. Marco Rubio’s press gaggle in the hallway outside the session, leading to this exchange:
Alex Jones was heckling Marco Rubio at a press gaggle in a Senate hallway. He patted Rubio on the shoulder.— jordan (@JordanUhl) September 5, 2018
Rubio: Don't touch me. You're not going to get arrested, I'll take care of you myself. pic.twitter.com/CoZZIj9T8J
And during Dorsey’s second session, Laura Loomer, who among other things is a professional alt-right interrupter, interrupted that session:
Far-right activist Laura Loomer just interrupted the House hearing and started shouting that @jack is a liar. Note how Rep. Long responded pic.twitter.com/XurpPXdP4K— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) September 5, 2018
Some media professionals would tell you not to watch this stuff, in the same way that TV sports broadcasters don’t show streakers when they interrupt a game. But I say if you’re going to a circus, you should watch the circus.
This story is going to keep going
Facebook, Twitter (and Google) face real challenges as they try to rein in the giant, automated machines they’ve built, while still keeping the money spigots flowing. Figuring out how to let conservatives have a voice isn’t one of those challenges, but that won’t stop Republicans from pushing the issue.
Case in point: Shortly after the morning session, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice announced it was going to consult with state attorneys general to discuss whether tech companies may be “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.