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Republicans blow up social media CEOs as Democrats mock audience

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers hammered CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, Google and each other during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, with Republicans saying companies suppressed conservative views while Democrats accused their colleagues of holding a hearing “Fictitious” for political purposes.

For nearly four hours, members of the Trade Committee tweeted Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai with over 120 questions about social media talk and the damage done by their platforms, often framing their attacks through the lens of next week’s elections. .

But unlike previous technical hearings, this one highlighted the partisan divide. Republicans attacked Twitter and Facebook for what they said was censorship of posts by conservative politicians and for downplaying a recent New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“Mr. Dorsey, who elected you and made you responsible for what the media is allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” Asked Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Democrats countered that Republicans concocted the hearing to pressure companies to be easy on them before election day.

“This is a sham,” said Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said Republicans are politicizing “what shouldn’t be a partisan topic.” And Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said they “put the selfish interests of Donald Trump before the health of our democracy.”

The drama, which has often evolved into scream, made the subject of the audience – the future of a legal shield for online platforms – barely debated. The event was billed as a discussion of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects social media companies from liability for what their users post and is considered sacrosanct by platforms.

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Washington’s efforts to tackle big tech companies in recent months have been largely bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans last week applauded a Justice Department lawsuit that accused Google of violating antitrust law while protecting a monopoly on its Internet search service. And lawmakers on both sides have pushed for new regulations to be applied to tech companies.

But the barbed wire exchanges from the audience showed just how divided the online discourse debate has become, with companies caught in the middle. Of the 81 questions asked by Republicans, 69 were about censorship and the political ideologies of tech workers tasked with moderating content, according to a New York Times tally. Democrats have asked 48 questions, mostly about regulating the spread of election-related disinformation and the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not sure what changes could be made to satisfy everyone,” said Jeff Kosseff, assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the United States Naval Academy. “You see two very, very different worldviews.”

Wednesday’s hearing came after months of protests by President Trump and Republican lawmakers over actions by tech companies to label, remove and limit the scope of posts. Twitter began labeling Mr. Trump’s posts in May for their inaccuracy and glorification of violence. Mr Trump hit back that month with an executive order to deprive social media companies of the legal shield of Section 230.

His allies in Congress have since piled up, with Republican leaders on the Senate Commerce Committee threatening to subpoena Mr. Dorsey, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Pichai to discuss Section 230. Democrats, who have been in anger at companies for allowing hate speech and disinformation to spread, the hearing also agreed.

The claims of online censorship conservatives are largely based on anecdotal examples of right-wing commentators or lawmakers whose content has been moderated by social media platforms. But many conservative figures have built huge audiences on the platforms, and lawmakers have failed to provide evidence that systemic bias is embedded in corporate products.

For tech executives, appearing on Capitol Hill has become routine. Wednesday’s hearing was the fifth time Mr. Zuckerberg has testified before Congress since April 2018; it was the third time for Mr. Pichai and Mr. Dorsey. All three testified by video due to the pandemic, with Mr. Zuckerberg briefly experiencing a technical issue at the start of the event.

Mr Dorsey has borne the brunt of the questions, Republicans have asked him nearly four dozen times about the so-called “censorship” of conservative politicians and the media. He was asked 58 questions in total, more than 49 for Mr. Zuckerberg and 22 for Mr. Pichai, according to the Times tally.

“Mr. Dorsey, your platform allows foreign dictators to publish propaganda, usually without restriction,” Trade Committee Chairman Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi said. “Yet you generally limit the President of the United States. . “

Mr Dorsey responded that Twitter had taken action against leaders around the world, including Mr Trump. “When we think about law enforcement, we consider the severity of the potential harm offline, and we act as quickly as possible,” he said.

Democrats asked Zuckerberg how Facebook is protecting itself from election interference. He said the company has spent billions of dollars on election security and pledged to fight foreign disinformation targeting the political process. He was also faced with questions about how the service was combating extremism online.

Mr. Pichai came out largely unharmed. Ms Klobuchar, who proposed changes to the antitrust law, questioned him that Google was too dominant.

“We are seeing strong competition in many categories of information,” said Pichai.

The attacks left little time for substantive discussions of the Section 230 review. With one exception, Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska, asked Mr. Zuckerberg what changes he would like to see in the article 230 on content moderation. He said he wanted more transparency on how the content was moderated, in order to build trust between users.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, also asked tech leaders about a clause in the law that protects companies from liability for restricting access to content they deem “obscene. , obscene, lascivious, dirty, excessively violent, harassing or other objectionable. “She asks if they would support a redefinition of the term” otherwise objectionable. “

All the directors general said they were in favor of keeping the sentence. Mr Pichai said it was important because it gave companies the flexibility to take action in situations that had never been addressed when the 1996 law was drafted, such as when children started. eating laundry detergent pods as part of a challenge to others.

Despite the bickering during the hearing, Republicans and Democrats are expected to continue drumming for changes to Section 230 at the next Congress.

Before that, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey will likely appear before Congress again. The two agreed to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next month on how their companies handled election content.

Reporting was provided by Daisuke Wakabayashi, Kate Conger, Mike Isaac and Kellen Browning of San Francisco.