Despite relatively staid early lines of questioning from lawmakers, the Senate Intelligence committee’s hearing on foreign electioneering on social media Wednesday swiftly turned into unconventional political theater, complete with a conspicuously empty chair set aside to highlight Google’s absence and a notable cameo from InfoWars leader Alex Jones.
Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are slated to field questions for hours on their platforms’ efforts to combat online disinformation and ongoing campaigns to influence the 2018 midterm elections. But it was Jones, who claims he’s being silenced by tech titans, who commanded attention outside the hearing room, where a scrum of reporters huddled around him as he pontificated on the wrongs he said the industry has done him.
The right-wing media figure, known for spreading baseless and inflammatory conspiracy theories, reignited criticisms that the companies are biased against conservatives after several tech platforms took down InfoWars content or banned him altogether. He later took a seat in the front row of the audience section of the hearing room.
Here’s a look at the top moments from the hearing so far.
Google’s CEO a no-show
Senate Intelligence leaders criticized Google for not sending its top executive, Sundar Pichai, to speak alongside Sandberg and Dorsey after weeks of publicly sparring with the search giant over the matter.
“Google has an immense responsibility in this space,” Warner said in opening comments at the hearing. “Given its size and influence, I would have thought the leadership at Google would want to demonstrate how seriously it takes these challenges and to lead this important public discussion.”
Committee Chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner both said they were “disappointed” Google opted against sending Pichai or Larry Page, CEO of Google parent company Alphabet. Google had offered to send senior vice president of global affairs Kent Walker, but the committee spurned the offer.
As late as Tuesday night, Warner extended the offer for Page to appear, tweeting it was “not too late for @Google to step up.”
In the absence of Page or Pichai, the committee followed through on threats to place an empty chair labeled “Google” where an exec would have sat, in a symbolic rebuke of the company.
Jones makes a surprise appearance
The InfoWars leaders livestreamed his entrance into the Senate building early Wednesday, and proceeded to slam Facebook and Twitter outside the hearing room.
“I’m here to face my accuser,” Jones told reporters at one point, reiterating his criticisms over the companies actions toward him.
In August, a spate of tech companies took action against Jones for violating their rules against hate speech and inciting violence. Twitter suspended him, while Facebook, Google’s YouTube and other platforms banned him outright.
On Wednesday, Jones cited those actions and called for the break-up of big tech companies.