Facebook and Twitter defend election safeguards and moderation practices before the Senate

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Jack Dorsey, Chief Executive Officer of Twitter, testifies remotely as Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., looks on during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election”, in Washington, U.S., November 17, 2020.
Bill Clark | Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey wrapped up their second Senate testimony in a month mostly unscathed and with little indication of imminent changes for their businesses.

The Facebook and Twitter CEOs appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday at a hearing entitled “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election.” The event was first proposed in the wake of a controversy around how the platforms handled an unverified New York Post article about President-elect Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. However, that topic came up only a handful of times.

This hearing took a more measured tone than the last in the Commerce Committee, where several Democrats noted their opposition to the hearing itself, as it was timed right before the election. Still, at Tuesday’s hearing, the senators’ questions continued to reflect a stark division in their viewpoints on content moderation. But there were also several indications of common ground that could eventually lead to reform to the tech industry’s liability shield, Section 230.

Censorship?

The key tension between Democrats and Republicans in the debate around Section 230 reform centers on the question of censorship. Republican lawmakers on the committee repeatedly hammered the CEOs with questions about censorship and potential bias in their algorithms and content moderation decisions.

Zuckerberg and Dorsey emphasized the importance of transparency in their processes to help users understand why they make the decisions they do. Dorsey also advocated for giving users more choice in the algorithms they see. Twitter does this by letting users select to see tweets in chronological order, rather than based on Twitter’s algorithm.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked the CEOs to provide them with documents giving insight into their moderation of politicians and other users from different parties.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, asked the executives how they could make their staff more ideologically diverse. Both suggested their moves toward more expansive remote work would allow likely lead to a more representative employee base.

Democrats on the committee were far more interested in where they believe moderation is falling short. They asked that both companies evaluate their procedures around this election and encouraged them to stay vigilant around the upcoming runoff elections in Georgia. Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., questioned if it’s sufficient for Twitter to label tweets by the president and others making inaccurate claims about the election when those messages are still visible. Dorsey defended the labels, saying they provide links to additional context from robust news sources.

Democrats also grilled Zuckerberg on Facebook’s failure to take swift action on posts from a militia group in Kenosha, Wisc. before an alleged shooter killed two people at a protest there. Zuckerberg said that, to his knowledge, the alleged shooter was not involved in that particular group, but acknowledged that the failure to act on that group was a “mistake.” Facebook ultimately took the page down.

Democrats also asked Zuckerberg why he had not yet removed Steve Bannon’s account after the former aide to President Donald Trump called for the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray in a podcast. While Facebook took down the post containing that message for violating its policies, Zuckerberg said that in many instances it takes multiple violations to take down an account.

When Blumenthal asked if he’d commit to taking down Bannon’s account, Zuckerberg said no.

“That’s not what our policies would suggest that we should do in this case,” he said. Still, further violations by Bannon on the platform could bring Facebook to take action.

Common ground

Lawmakers on the committee did seemed to agree that some sort of reform to Section 230 is coming.

“I fully expect that Congress is going to act” within the next session, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. said, adding that the questions Republicans and Democrats were asking were not all that far apart.

“If you listen to what they’re asking you, they’re concerned with a kind of outcome that they didn’t like on social media in equal measure,” he said.

Zuckerberg said early in the hearing he felt “optimistic” the laws around the internet would be updated, as he has called for.

“There may be now enough common ground on views that real progress can be made here,” he said.

One notable exception was Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who said he was skeptical of a regulatory fix.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also expressed broader social concerns about social media. Early in the hearing, Graham asked Zuckerberg if his products can be addictive.

“We certainly do not design the products in that way,” Zuckerberg said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., later echoed Graham’s concerns about social media’s impacts on children.

“There’s something really going on in terms of the self-esteem and well-being and even flourishing of our children who are deeply affected by these platforms,” Booker said.

Google gets ‘a pass’

Google, which owns the video-sharing platform YouTube, was not part of this hearing. It was not a key player in the controversy around the New York Post article, which users mostly tried to share on Facebook and Twitter’s text-based platforms. Facebook flagged the article for a fact-check review and reduced its distribution while Twitter initially prevented users from posting the link at all, citing its hacked materials and personal information policies based on documents in the article, then backtracked.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Google appeared to be getting a “pass” from Republicans on the committee who decided not to include its CEO in the hearing.

“It’s been rewarded by this committee for its timidity — doing even less than you have done to live up to its responsibilities,” Blumenthal said.

Sundar Pichai joined his peers at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee last month to discuss Section 230. Blumenthal later said he hoped Google and Amazon would be included in future hearings and Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., agreed.

“I think there’s one certainty here, which is that Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey will be back,” Blumenthal said. “I hope that joining them will be Google and Amazon and others, which should be held similarly accountable.”

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