The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google defended themselves Wednesday on Capitol Hill from charges of political bias in how they share news and other information.
They testified before a Senate committee roughly a week after Twitter and Facebook suppressed a New York Post expose on the lucrative foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
But the hearing went well beyond the Post’s coverage two weeks ago of the files contained in a laptop computer purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, delving into what Republicans called a consistent double standard in blocking content on the digital platforms.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified under oath before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. The three agreed to appear voluntarily and remotely to avoid a subpoena during what has become a hot issue this election year.
Several Republicans have talked about revoking the protection from litigation that social media platforms enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The provision exempts the companies from being sued for published content they didn’t originate–such as the New York Post’s coverage of the Hunter Biden scandal.
If the companies are blocking or suppressing online content based on political leaning, some lawmakers have argued, they are functionally publishers and not neutral platforms, and can be exposed to the same defamation laws as news organizations such as the Post.
Section 230 should be “carefully refined” to fit the law’s original intent but not scrapped, even if social media giants and other tech firms have squandered the public’s trust, contends Klon Kitchen, director of the Center for Technology Policy at The Heritage Foundation, in a report published Tuesday.
“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been critical to the development of today’s Internet and Internet services,” the report’s summary states, adding:
But the expanding presence of these services in the lives of Americans and a growing political distrust of the companies providing these services highlight the need to refine the scope and language of Section 230 to better fit the statute’s original intent and to assuage these concerns. Such refinement is the best way to fan the flames of economic freedom and creativity while protecting individual and corporate freedom of speech.
Here are four key takeaways from the Senate committee’s hearing on the perceived bias of tech firms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
1. ‘Just One Example?’
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, noted several cases in which digital platforms put restrictions on conservative politicians and media outlets, and pressed the CEOs to name one example of a liberal individual or entity that got the same scrutiny. Only Google’s CEO was able to give a specific answer.
“I see these quotes where each of you tell consumers about your business practices. Then you seem to do the opposite and take censorship-related actions against the president, against members of his administration, against the New York Post, the Babylon Bee, The Federalist, pro-life groups, and there are countless other exammples,” Lee said.
The Utah Republican clarified what he meant.
“When I use the word ‘censor,’ I mean block content, fact check, or label content or demonetize websites of conservative, Republican, or pro-life individuals or groups or companies, contradicting your commercial policies,” Lee said. “But I don’t see this suppression of high-profile liberal commentators.”
Facebook’s Zuckerberg said examples exist, but he just couldn’t think of any.
“There are certainly many examples that your Democratic colleagues object to when a fact-checker might label something as false that they disagree with,” Zuckerberg said.
Lee responded: “I get that. I’m just asking if you can name one high-profile liberal person or company who you have censored. One name.”
Zuckerberg replied, “I’d need to think about it and get you a list.”
Dorsey of Twitter responded, “We can give a more exhaustive list.”
Lee reiterated, “I’m not asking for an exhaustive list, just one example, one entity. Anyone.”
Twitter’s Dorsey said, “Two Democratic Congress people. … I’ll get those names to you.”
By contrast, Google’s Pichai seemed prepared for the question.
“We have turned down ads from Priorities USA, from Vice President Biden’s campaign,” the Google chief said. “We have had compliance issues with World Socialist Review, which is a left-leaning publication. We can give you several examples. We have a violent graphic content policy.”
World Socialist Review apparently was last published in 2011.
Lee said the tech companies have the right to set their own terms of service.
“But given the disparate impact of who gets censored on your platforms, it seems that one, you are to enforce your terms of service equally, or two, you’re writing your standards to target conservative viewpoints,” Lee said.
2. Who Elected You?
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, didn’t mince words, declaring: “The three witnesses we have before this committee collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.”
Cruz jumped into the example of the New York Post’s explosive Oct. 14 story on Hunter Biden. Twitter blocked the Post’s Twitter account after the newspaper posted the story, and prevented Twitter users from sharing it.Twitter also blocked the account of a Politico reporter who tweeted the story until he removed it from his feed, the Texas Republican said.
“You forced a Politico reporter to take down his post about the New York Post as well. Is that correct?” Cruz asked.
Dorsey said the company changed its policy on the story.
“Within that 24-hour period, yes. But as the policy has changed,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey said if the New York Post deleted the story it would have the account back, and would be free to re-pose the story.
Cruz responded by talking about the power of Twitter’s platform:
So Twitter can censor Politico, you can censor the New York Post. Presumably you can censor The New York Times or any other media outlet. Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear? And why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?
Dorsey defended his company, stating it plans to publish the process for content moderation and provide greater transparency to gain public trust.
“We’re not doing that [censoring the media]. That is why I opened this hearing with calls for more transparency,” Dorsey said. “We realize we need to earn trust more. We realize that more accountability is needed to show our intentions and to show the outcomes. So I hear the concerns and acknowledge them. But we want to fix it with more transparency.”
3. Sticking Up for Tech Giants
Democratic senators on the committee generally denied any anti-conservative bias on social media, and in some cases said there should be more censorship.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, went a step further than colleagues by casting the three CEOs as victims who were being bullied by Republicans on the committee.
“We never do this and there is a good reason we do not haul people before us to yell at them for not doing our bidding during an election,” Schatz said. “It is a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
What we are seeing today is an attempt to bully CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate by making sure that they push out foreign and domestic misinformation meant to influence the election.
To our witnesses today, you and other tech leaders need to stand up to this immoral behavior. The truth is that because some of my colleagues accuse you, your companies, and your employees of being biased or liberal, you have institutionally bent over backwards and overcompensated. You’ve hired Republican operatives, hosted private dinners with Republcian leaders, and in contravention of your terms of service, given special dispensation to right-wing voices and even throttled progressive journalism.
Schatz cited no examples of such “throttled” news sites.
4. Tweets by Iran, China, Trump
Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., first called out Dorsey about a Chinese government official’s tweet that the U.S. Army created COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that originated in China.
Wicker asked about a disclaimer that Twitter quickly attached to a Trump tweet about problems with mail-in ballots, in which Twitter claimed there is no security problem. By contrast, when a Chinese official tweeted that the U.S. created COVID-19, it took two months for Twitter to add a similar disclaimer.
“How does a claim by Chinese communists that the U.S. military is to blame for COVID remain up for two months without a fact check, and the president’s tweet about the security of mail-in ballots gets labeled instantly?”
Twitter’s Dorsey responded that he didn’t know exactly how long the Chinese tweet on COVID-19 remained up, but said Twitter’s gatekeepers decided that Trump’s tweet on mail-in ballots would misinform the public.
Wicker also asked about tweets from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that promised or advocated violence.
“These tweets are still up, Mr. Dorsey. How is it that they are acceptable based on your policies at Twitter?” Wicker asked.
Dorsey responded: “We believe it’s important for everyone to hear from global leaders.”
“We have policies around world leaders,” the Twitter CEO continued. “We want to make sure we are respecting their right to speak and to publish what they need. But, if there is a violation of our terms of service, we want to label it.”
Wicker: “They are still up. Do they violate your terms of service?”
Dorsey: “We did not find those to violate our terms of service because we considered them saber rattling, which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., expressed caution about making changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“I don’t like the idea of unelected elites in San Francisco or Silicon Valley deciding whether my speech is permissible on their platforms,” Gardner said, adding:
But I like even less the idea of unelected Washington, D.C., bureaucrats trying to enforce some kind of political neutral content moderation. We have to be very careful and not rush to legislate in ways that stifle speech. You can delete Facebook, turn off Twitter, and ditch Google. But you cannot unsubscribe from government censors.
Still, Gardner was tough on Dorsey, asking why the platform didn’t delete tweets by the Iranian leader that denied the Holocaust, yet flagged tweets by Trump.
“It’s strange to me that you flagged the tweets from the president but haven’t hidden the ayatollah’s tweets on Holocaust denial or calls to wipe Israel off the map?”
Dorsey said it is a different type of misinformation.
“We do have other policies around incitement to violence,” Dorsey said. “Some of the tweets that you mentioned are examples that might fall afoul of that.”
Gardner: “So, somebody who denies the Holocaust happened is not [spreading] misinformation?”
Dorsey: “It’s misleading information, but we don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information.”