Outside experts have found little evidence to support claims of widespread, systematic political bias in Silicon Valley’s technology. But the conservative allegations are an explosive charge and a dramatic escalation ahead of Election Day. They reflect not only the stakes of the race, but also the fact that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become key parts of America’s democracy, for better or for worse — and now, fair game for a party with a habit of working the refs.
The Commerce Committee isn’t the only one looking to put tech execs in the hotseat. Last Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans voted to authorize subpoenas for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that would compel them to testify about conservative censorship. No Democrats participated in the vote to compel their testimony.
In calling for the subpoenas earlier this month, Sen. Ted Cruz blasted tech platforms for “actively interfering in this election in a way that has no precedent in the history of our country.”
“Twitter and Facebook and Big Tech billionaires don’t get to censor political speech and actively interfere in the election,” Cruz said. “That’s what they’re doing right now.”
Twitter declined to comment for this story. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the company has faced criticism equally from Republicans “for being biased against conservatives and Democrats for not taking more steps to restrict the exact same content. We have rules in place to protect the integrity of the election and free expression, and we will continue to apply them impartially.”
Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Constant complaints of bias
As with traditional media, conservatives have long complained of unfair treatment at the hands of social media platforms. But that critique shifted into overdrive this month with the election looming.
The high-profile demands for executive testimony are just one way that conservatives are dialing up the pressure on Big Tech.
The flurry of accusations has created a right-wing firestorm aimed at forcing social media platforms to treat conservative content more permissively — and in the event they refuse, to broadly delegitimize the platforms at a time when millions are relying on their services for accurate information about voting and the pandemic.
Experts in political communication say that what Cruz, Hawley and other Republicans are doing right now fits a longtime pattern.
“We could have called this like a CW show from the year 2000,” said Dave Karpf, a political scientist at George Washington University. “You can predict every beat that’ll happen.”
A complicated relationship
And the platforms themselves have gone out of their way to help conservatives.
McGregor said it makes no sense to label companies’ content moderation decisions under their publicly stated policies as an “in-kind contribution” when the companies had already provided direct assistance to campaigns in the past.
“No one was making claims of it being an illegal in-kind contribution in 2016 when there were actual staffers working side-by-side in the Trump campaign offices,” McGregor said. To say that the companies’ content decisions violate campaign finance laws “is a pretty wild and baseless claim,” she added.
But fast-forward four years, and allegations of the tech industry’s liberal agenda dominates Republican talking points.
“If there’s any interference in the election, it’s by Twitter and Facebook right now and trying to put a particular narrative out there,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said last Monday on Fox News.
“Isn’t this behavior evidence of market power?” he said in a September hearing. “Why would any company want to treat its customers that way unless it was confident its customers had no viable alternative?”
Big Tech’s real Washington problems
But those issues are fundamentally different from what top Republicans have identified as their main grievance with tech companies, said Sen. Brian Schatz, who also sits on the Commerce Committee.
“I do want to separate the good-faith critiques of Section 230 and the questions surrounding antitrust, which are legitimate,” Schatz said. “That’s not what this [upcoming] hearing is about, and that’s not what this effort two weeks out from the election is. This is about just bludgeoning these CEOs into submission.”
No matter how hard tech platforms seek to win conservatives’ approval, it is becoming increasingly clear that nothing will stop the attacks over alleged political bias, said Karpf. That’s because, he said, sowing distrust in the medium is precisely the point.
“There is no set of things you can do to get Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz not to complain about this, because it is strategically useful to complain about it,” said Karpf.
A troubling side effect of the conservative attacks is the politicization of social media technology itself, said McGregor, which is problematic when so many Americans now use social media to get their news.
“We can disagree about information,” McGregor said. “But to say that there is some grand conspiracy perpetrated by the legacy media and tech platforms to silence Republicans is a step beyond that, and it delegitimizes these mechanisms we have to get people information.”
Several experts said the GOP’s efforts to discredit social media companies is similar to how it has politicized executive agencies, cast aspersions on federal inspectors general and violated longstanding political norms over judicial appointments and confirmations.
“If you undermine those institutions that can provide a check on your power, then power is unlimited,” McGregor added. “Then that’s not a democracy.”