The Senate has more than six days ahead of a historic presidential election, the outcome of which is expected to shape the future of US democracy, and as Congress delays the passage of a new economic agreement to help millions of unemployed Americans affected by the ongoing pandemic Talked for three hours about something else: how social media companies deal with controversial speeches on the Internet.
Wednesday's hearing should focus on nuanced reforms of a landmark Internet law – Section 230 – that protects tech companies from being sued for content users who post on their platforms. Both Democrats and Republicans have been calling for this law to be reformed for years, arguing that it is out of date considering how big and powerful these tech giants have become. For this reason, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transport has summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
But instead of talking about reforming the actual law, most Republican senators – with notable exceptions such as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) – used their time to tell the CEOs about certain things Content to inform moderation decisions that have been controversial with Republicans. Namely, Twitter is blocking an unconfirmed story in the New York Post making damned allegations against Hunter Biden earlier this month, or why the company is scrutinizing Trump more often than leaders of Iran or the Chinese Communist Party.
Some Democrats at the hearing – and many outside observers – have written off the hearing as political theater staged by Conservative days ahead of the election to intimidate these companies into not scrutinizing Trump or conservative disinformation campaigns.
However, Republicans argued that allegations of bias were critical and valid and that they needed to be addressed quickly.
Many senators used assumptions and selected evidence to support their arguments. In response, tech CEOs have effectively bypassed more serious discussions about their actual shortcomings in content moderation.
Here are the fact-checks of the five most scratchy senators – and tech CEOs – that were done at the hearing.
1) Although Republicans say social media companies largely censor conservative speech, the evidence does not support the claim.
Many conservative lawmakers, encouraged by President Trump, have long claimed that tech companies censor Republicans on social media. And today's hearing was no exception.
Citing social media firms' handling of the Hunter Biden New York Post story as well as threats from Google to ban the federalist's conservative news website for allegedly racist content, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) said , Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, in his opening speeches: "These recent incidents are just the latest in a long trail of censorship and suppression of conservative voices on the Internet."
While Twitter and Facebook have made some controversial and sometimes questionable decisions to curb false or unverified speech by conservative politicians and news outlets (Twitter reversed its stance on blocking the Hunter Biden story, Facebook did not), these are individual examples.
Overall, data shows that conservative content thrives on social media. Conservative pundits like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro are consistently among the most shared news sources on Facebook because of the company's data aggregation tool, CrowdTangle. And despite all the criticism of Trump's alleged censorship by Twitter, the president uses the platform every day to reach tens of millions more followers than Joe Biden.
In fact, Trump himself has repeatedly stated that without social media he would not be able to keep people informed.
Republican senators asked why tech companies haven't scrutinized high-profile Democratic leaders like Biden for facts as much as Trump, but they ignored the very obvious answer: Trump, unlike Biden, was more likely to make false and misleading statements on social issues. If Biden were to attack mail-in-voting or the basic research behind Covid-19, as Trump did, he would likely face the same type of moderation.
Thanks to Republicans, many of the people who work in tech companies are liberal (more on that later). And in 2016, Gizmodo reported that these political beliefs sometimes led to low-level decisions about moderating employee content via the disastrous "Facebook Trending" section. But a lot has changed since then (for one thing, Facebook has completely abolished its trend area). If anything, the evidence now seems to suggest that Facebook has shifted the other way to please Republicans and ward off allegations of anti-conservative bias. According to recent reports from BuzzFeed News, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, the company has temporarily overridden its fact-checking system and tweaked its algorithms to favor conservative publications over liberal ones like Mother Jones.
2) Ted Cruz claimed social media companies are the biggest threat to freedom of expression in the US. It is not at all clear.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) hotly came to the hearing, announcing his intention to grill Dorsey in a wrestling-match-style flyer he (ironically) tweeted the night before the meeting, all in the name of the defense freedom of speech the internet.
"The three witnesses we have before the committee today together pose the greatest threat to freedom of expression in America and the greatest threat to free and fair elections," said Cruz of Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Pichai.
Cruz is of course entitled to his opinion, but it is not objectively clear that the greatest threat to free speech or electoral integrity in this country is for Facebook, Twitter or Google politicians like Trump to check facts.
If you were to ask the same question to free speech leaders and human rights organizations, many would say that Trump's continued and increasingly vitriolic attacks on the free press have been a bigger problem since his first day in office. If social media companies pose a threat to freedom of expression, it has less to do with dealing with conservative voices and more to do with the extremist hate speech that is spreading on their platforms, discouraging women and minorities and other marginalized groups by getting out excluded from public online discourse.
It is right that social media companies are now competing with governments for power and influence, and free speech advocates of all political beliefs are calling for these companies to provide greater transparency and accountability about what content they do and what they don't.
But for Cruz and some of his Republican counterparts, to support free speech only when it suits their political needs (in one extreme example, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) condemned Google for allegedly censoring Republicans while telling the company about one Firing ordinary employees whom she has publicly criticized is hypocritical at best.
3) Dorsey told Cruz that Twitter has no impact on elections. It does.
Despite Cruz's mostly theatrical political showboating, he got on an important exchange with Dorsey, highlighting a problem stemming from the tech platforms themselves: their refusal to acknowledge that they are more than just neutral platforms.
Cruz once asked Dorsey if Twitter had any influence on the election, and Dorsey said no.
Cruz replied, "If you don't believe you have the power to influence elections, why are you blocking something?"
Dorsey's response was that Twitter was blocking content to reduce nuisance and make everyone feel like they were on its platform. Facebook and Google have similarly claimed that they want to be neutral platforms for people to communicate with, with exceptions to protect their users from harm. But that's only part of the picture.
The reality is that Twitter, Facebook, Google, and every other social media platform make decisions every day about what kind of political speech is allowed and what isn't on their platforms. Additionally, the algorithms underlying these platforms determine which topics will go viral and reach the masses instantly, and which will be seen by a much smaller number of people. And because these websites are the primary way that millions of Americans primarily consume their daily news, what is and is not allowed on them can of course affect how someone votes on an election.
The fact that Dorsey – like Zuckerberg and Pichai – would not admit this fundamental fact was an indication that tech CEOs were not open enough about the political power they have amassed through their companies.
4) The senators suggested that the liberal majority of those working in tech companies was a problem. But that's not illegal, nor is it the government's job with the police.
First, let's be clear that most tech people on Google, Twitter, and Facebook are liberal. This reflects the demographics these companies are based in and the skills they are hired for: mostly highly educated workers in large urban areas like San Francisco, New York and Seattle.
In Wednesday's hearing, several Republican senators questioned tech CEOs about the political make-up of their workforce as if it was something shameful.
The implication is that because these companies have a liberal-minded workforce, they are stifling conservative language by default.
As mentioned earlier, there is no real evidence of this systematic suppression. And even if it did, the solution wouldn't necessarily be for everyone who works for Facebook or Twitter to pass some sort of political litmus test.
Congress has a dark history in which citizens have been excluded from work because of their political beliefs. While it is fair to question the unprecedented political power of tech companies and seek to regulate this issue, it is dangerous for lawmakers to misleadingly view the issues at hand as being linked to employees' personal policies.
5) The senators mispronounced the name of Google CEO Sundar Pichai over and over again. It is pronounced "pitch eye".
Senators across the aisle repeatedly butchered the name of Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The softly spoken Pichai, who was born and raised in India and had worked his way up from product manager to managing director of the product giant, refrained from correcting his questions.
The fact that members of Congress mispronounced the name of one of the top business leaders in the United States was an embarrassing mistake that many observers immediately noticed on Twitter. Especially since it was the third time that Pichai was questioned before Congress.
While getting Pichai's name right is a less important point among the broader social media topics, it doesn't matter either. Over the past few months, Trump and some Republican lawmakers have repeatedly mocked Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris over the pronunciation of her name. In this case, it is more likely that Senators botched Pichai's name out of ignorance rather than malice. But, as BuzzFeed News pointed out, Congress has had no problem pronouncing other hard-to-pronounce names in the past. In 2020, there is really no excuse for elected officials not to at least try to pronounce the name of a global tech titan correctly.
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