Twitter CEO Charms Lawmakers But Exposes Company's Shortcomings

(Bloomberg) -- Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey charmed lawmakers with an introverted demeanor and thoughtful responses to questions on topics from election meddling to content moderation. But his answers also exposed the social-media company’s shortcomings.

Sporting a nose ring, no tie, and a soft-spoken, introspective style, Dorsey’s performance during congressional hearings on Wednesday was a contrast to the more-polished approach of Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg. The Twitter boss opened by saying he was shy and that his parents were proud of him and his company. He apologized dozens of times for Twitter’s mistakes and was praised by Representative William Long for being genuine.

"A lot of people come into these hearings and they practice," Long said. "You are who you are and that shows today, and I think that that has a lot to do with how successful you’ve been."

But contrition and charm could only go so far. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Twitter and Facebook similar questions about efforts to prevent foreign influence over U.S. elections -- and that exposed how much less firepower Twitter has compared with its larger rival.

"Jack Dorsey came up really short," Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told Bloomberg TV. Almost two years after the 2016 presidential election "we’re still talking about needing to develop ways to tackle the problem, rather than actually doing that in a meaningful way."

Facebook is doubling safety and security staff to 20,000 this year. Dorsey declined to specify how many employees are policing Twitter, but it has fewer than 4,000 in total. Lawmakers cited a threatening, doctored image of Meghan McCain from her father’s recent funeral that remained on Twitter for half a day, despite being reported to the company numerous times. Dorsey said it took too long to remove.

Lacking an army of human content moderators like Facebook and YouTube, Twitter mostly relies on users to report bad behavior. Yet Dorsey acknowledged that the company can’t place the burden on victims to report abuse on the service. Twitter needs to more actively look for problems, he said. But the CEO didn’t provide many details on how that would happen, beyond improving software that scours for inappropriate tweets.

Another uncomfortable exchange occurred when Representative David McKinley confronted Dorsey by pulling up live tweets advertising illegal drugs. "Within the last hour, here’s an ad for cocaine on Twitter. It’s still up," McKinley said. "I would be ashamed if I were you." Dorsey had little to say, beyond "this is unacceptable and we will act."

Twitter shares ended the day down more than 6 percent, while Facebook slipped 2.3 percent. A grilling in Congress rarely dents stock prices of the companies involved. But if Twitter is being pushed to spend more on improving the health of discourse on its service, product enhancements, advertising innovations and other efforts to increase revenue may fall by the wayside.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.