Under fire from President Donald Trump and his allies, executives of Twitter, Facebook and Google denied allegations of anti-conservative bias at a Senate hearing Wednesday and vowed to aggressively defend their platforms from being used to sow chaos in next week’s election.
Legislators from both sides, keeping an eye on companies’ enormous ability to convey speech and ideas, seek to challenge their long-awaited basic legal protection for online speech – the declared topic of the hearing, but one that was quickly overtaken by issues related to the presidential election campaign.
With concerns about election safety growing, Senators in the Commerce Committee made promises from Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai that their companies would be on guard against foreign interference or incitement to violence around the election result.
Testimony via video, executives said they are taking several steps, including partnerships with news organizations, to distribute accurate voting information. Dorsey said Twitter worked closely with state election officials.
“We want to provide people who use the service with as much information as possible,” he said.
Republicans, led by Trump, have accused social media platforms without evidence of deliberately suppressing conservative, religious and anti-abortion views, and they say that behavior has reached new heights in the competition between the president and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Chairman of the committee, said at the start of the hearing that online speech laws need to be updated because “the openness and freedom of the Internet is under attack.”
Wicker quoted features of Facebook and Twitter this month to limit the dissemination of an unconfirmed political story from the conservative New York Post about Biden. The story, which was not confirmed by other publications, quoted unconfirmed emails from the City’s son Hunter, who was reportedly revealed by Trump allies.
“Twitter’s behavior has been by far the most sinister,” Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Dorsey. Cruz cited Twitter’s limitations in newspaper history as part of “a pattern of censorship and silence by Americans with whom Twitter disagrees.”
“Who the hell chose you? And put yourself in charge of what the media is allowed to report? Cruz asked.
Dorsey told Cruz that he does not believe Twitter can influence elections because it is only a source of information. He tried to steer senators away from conventional notions of political bias, noting that “much of the content people see today is determined by algorithms.” He endorsed a proposal from computer scientist Stephen Wolfram that allowed third parties to guide how artificial intelligence systems choose which posts people see.
In moderation: U.S. technology companies in front of the Senate hear about prejudice
GOP senators, along with leaders, raised a number of allegations of second bias on the platforms regarding Iran, China and Holocaust denial.
There is no evidence that the giants on social media are biased against conservative news, posts or other material, or that they favor one side of political debate over another, researchers have found. But Republicans are not alone in raising corporate policy concerns.
Democrats focused their criticism primarily on hate speech, misinformation, and other content that could incite violence, prevent people from voting, or spread lies about coronavirus. They criticized the technical executives for not having the police with content and accused the platforms of having played a role in hate crimes and the emergence of white nationalism in the United States.
In the midst of the debate, the Trump administration has asked Congress to remove some of the protections that have generally protected technology companies from legal responsibility for what people put on their platforms. The proposals would change changes in a provision of a 1996 law that has been the basis for unhindered speech on the Internet. Critics of both parties say that immunity under section 230 of the law allows companies on social media to abdicate their responsibility for impartial moderate content.
Trump chimed in on Wednesday with a tweet admonishing: “Repeal section 230!”
CEOs argued that liability protection has helped make the Internet what it is today, although Zuckerberg said he believes Congress “should update the law to ensure it works as intended. Dorsey and Pichai called for caution in making changes.
But leaders also denied allegations of bias. “We are approaching our work without political bias, period,” Pichai said. “To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission.”
Companies in recent years have struggled with how strongly they should intervene in the speech. They have often gone out of their way not to be biased towards conservative views – a body posture that some say effectively tilts them against these views. Efforts have been particularly tense for Facebook, which was caught off guard in 2016 when it was used as a channel by Russian agents to spread misinformation for the benefit of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Wednesday’s session lacked the personal drama from star witness proceedings before the coronavirus outbreak. The hearing room was almost empty except for Wicker and a few colleagues, as most senators attended externally, but their interrogations were sharp as temper flared among the members.
Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, went after the Republicans and said the hearing was a “scam.” Schatz said in their question that Republicans are “trying to bully the heads of private companies into doing a hit job” on political leaders.
All three companies have encrypted to curb material that encourages violence and spreads lies and baseless conspiracy theories. In their efforts to mislead the police about the election, Twitter and Facebook have imposed a misinformation label on some content from the president, which has about 80 million followers.
Trump has publicly refused to accept the results if he loses the presidential race. He has also raised the unfounded prospect of mass fraud in the voting process. None of the five states that postal voting for all voters has seen significant cases of fraud.
As of Tuesday, Facebook does not accept any new political advertising. Previously reserved political ads can run until the polls close on November 3, when all political advertising will be temporarily banned. Google, which owns YouTube, also stops political ads after the polls close. Twitter banned all political ads last year.