The chief executive officers of Twitter and Facebook took the stand on Tuesday to testify, again, about allegations of anti-conservative bias on their platforms.
Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey were subpoenaed in October to appear at Tuesday’s hearing with the Senate judiciary committee in order to “review the companies’ handling of the 2020 election”.
Republican lawmakers frequently allege – without evidence – censorship of conservative views, but this particular hearing was called in response to the companies’ handling of a New York Post article about Joe Biden.
When the story was published in October, Twitter took unprecedented steps to limit its circulation, blocking users from posting links or photos of the report. At the time, Twitter said the measures were taken due to “the origins of the materials” included in the article, which were allegedly pulled from a computer that had been left by Hunter Biden at a Delaware computer repair shop in April 2019. Twitter policies prohibit “directly distribut[ing] content obtained through hacking that contains private information”.
The company later walked back on its response, tweeting that the communication around the actions on the article “was not great”. It also changed its hacked materials policies in response to the outcry. Facebook took a less aggressive stance, placing some limitations on the article due to questions about its validity.
In his opening statement, Dorsey explained again the company took action against the New York Post tweet due to “the origins of the materials” included in the article and said that Twitter upon further review decided that action was wrong. “I hope this illustrates the rationale behind our actions and demonstrates our ability to take feedback,” Dorsey said. “Mistakes and changes were all transparent to the public.”
As in previous hearings, Republican senators, including the committee chairman, Lindsey Graham, pressed the line that the social media giants were biased against conservatives, even though researchers have found no evidence to confirm it. “I think there’s Republican and Democratic concern about the power that’s being used by social media outlets to tell us what we can see and what we can’t, what’s true and what’s not,” Graham said at the start of the hearing.
And although Zuckerberg and Dorsey were called to speak at the hearing in advance of the election, how their companies handled misinformation over the last few weeks was a dominant focus of questioning.
“You have an immense civic and moral responsibility,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.
Twitter and Facebook have both slapped a misinformation label on some content from Donald Trump, most notably his baseless assertions linking voting by mail to fraud. On Monday, Twitter flagged Trump’s tweet proclaiming “I won the Election!” with this note: “Official sources called this election differently.”
Facebook also moved two days after the election to ban a large group called “Stop the Steal” that Trump supporters were using to organize protests against the vote count. The 350,000-member group echoed Trump’s baseless allegations of a rigged election.
For days after the election, as the vote counting went on, copycat “Stop the Steal” groups were easily found on Facebook, with one nearing 12,000 members as of last week. As of Monday, Facebook appeared to have made them harder to find, though it was still possible to locate them, including some groups with thousands of members.
In light of the many issues facing the US and Facebook, some lawmakers characterized calling a hearing about the limitations on a specific New York Post article as frivolous.
“We live in a dangerous world: there are issues of national security, the worst pandemic public health crisis in modern times in America, and we’re being challenged as to whether there is going to be a peaceful transition of power in America’s presidency,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. “At that moment in time, we decided none of those topics were important, and that what was important was to determine whether or not, social media was discriminating against Republicans.”
Lawmakers from both parties signaled their support to modify Section 230 of the 1996 telecommunications law, which has provided tech companies with legal protections for what users post on the platform.
Democrats have focused their concern on hate speech and incitement on social media platforms that can spawn violence, and argued during the hearing that the tech giants have become too big and powerful.
Many Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, implied Section 230 enables the tech companies to censor conservatives, though failed to recognize that repealing it would greatly limit what users could post.
Committee chairman Graham said Section 230 should be modified to “incentivize social media platforms to come up with standards that are transparent”, a strategy modeled by the Earn It Act, introduced in the Senate in 2019 by Graham and other Democratic and Republican senators.
However, civil rights groups have warned the Earn It Act could negatively affect free speech protections and create a chilling effect online. It could also enable the government to break encryption to monitor internal messaging and erode privacy.
Many on the left and the right acknowledged on Tuesday that action should be taken against big tech, but the hearings showed just how much the parties differ in their approaches.
“Messing with Section 230 would only make big tech companies more powerful, and exacerbate the problems that lawmakers say they’re concerned about,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of tech and privacy rights group Fight for the Future.
“What makes all this even more frustrating is that there are very real harms being done by the data harvesting and surveillance capitalist business model of big tech,” Greer said. “Instead of Lindsey Graham’s showboat hearing, lawmakers should be getting to work passing strong federal data privacy legislation, enforcing antitrust laws, and restoring net neutrality. We can’t afford more partisan posturing on this.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report