Social media chief executives faced a blaze of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum for their approach to moderating content, at a bruising Senate hearing just days before a US presidential election.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter chief executive, appeared via video on Wednesday at the Senate commerce committee hearing alongside Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai. All three chief executives sought to defend their content moderation processes as unbiased.
The committee is one of several bodies reviewing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a law that gives tech platforms immunity from being sued over user-generated content.
Such sweeping protections are seen by some as too generous. Republicans have claimed the companies censor rightwing voices after they restricted some of President Donald Trump’s posts for breaching their misinformation policies.
Roger Wicker, committee chairman and a Republican senator, opened the hearing by accusing Twitter and the other platforms of “selective censorship . . . in the midst of the 2020 election cycle”.
He cited the decision by Facebook and Twitter to add restrictions to a New York Post story about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, dissemination of which was curbed on the basis that it was sourced from hacked materials. However, Mr Wicker said, the platforms had not restricted a damning story in The New York Times about Mr Trump’s tax returns.
Mr Dorsey told the panel that Twitter, which was the first platform to add cautionary labels to rule-breaking posts by Mr Trump, “does not have an understanding of the ideology of any one particular account. It’s also not how our policies are written or enforcement taken.”
He also shrugged off concerns that his platform had the power to influence elections. “We are one channel in a spectrum of communication channels that people have. People have a choice of other communication channels.”
In an awkward exchange with Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, Mr Zuckerberg, who joined the call after a delay due to a technical issue, was unable to name a single high-profile liberal figure who had been restricted by moderators.
All three platforms have denied that they are biased towards any political party, instead saying that they promote free speech with curbs to protect users from abuse. Research suggests that rightwing content tends to receive some of the highest engagement on the platforms.
Meanwhile, Democratic senators used the hearing to call for the platforms to do more to monitor their apps, raising concerns that they could be wielded by groups such as far-right militias to call for violence or voter intimidation on polling day next week.
“I believe the Republicans have called this hearing in order to support a false narrative fabricated by the president to help his re-election prospects,” said Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin senator, a Democrat. “The tech companies here today need to take more action, not less.”
Mr Zuckerberg said that “incitement to violence is against our policies and there are no exceptions to that, including for politicians”.
Speaking specifically to Section 230, Mr Zuckerberg became the first big tech group leader to endorse some reform, calling on Congress to “update the law to make sure it’s working as intended”.
While Mr Zuckerberg did not say which specific reform proposals he backed, he expressed support for “ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals”.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican head of the Senate judiciary committee, is leading a bipartisan effort that would create a national commission — including heads of law enforcement agencies, legal experts and industry executives — to set a series of “best practices” for internet companies to follow. Only companies that followed those guidelines would be granted Section 230 immunity.
But Mr Dorsey said that “eroding the foundation of Section 230 could collapse how we communicate on the internet, leaving only a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies” able to fully police content and deal with legal liabilities.
The US Department of Justice on Tuesday urged lawmakers to “move swiftly” to reform the law, citing concern over the platforms’ decision to restrict the New York Post article.
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