The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans accused Facebook, Google and Twitter of bias. Democrats called the hearing ‘dumb.’

FROM LEFT: Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, Juniper Downs, global head of public policy and government relations at YouTube, and Nick Pickles, senior strategist of public policy at Twitter, swear in at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on social media filtering practices. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News)

Facebook, Google and Twitter on Tuesday sought to defend themselves against accusations from Republican lawmakers who said the tech giants censor conservative news and views during a congressional hearing that devolved into a political sniping match.

Lawmakers had convened the nearly three-hour session before the House Judiciary Committee to explore the “filtering” practices of major social media companies, where a mix of human reviewers and powerful yet secret algorithms review online content — a process meant to stifle offensive speech that even tech giants admit is not perfect.

But GOP lawmakers led by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), ultimately focused much of their efforts on highlighting what they perceive as bias against those on the political right — a charge the tech companies repeatedly denied. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), for example, accused Google of censoring the word “Jesus” in some search results. (He did not explain or give the company a chance to respond.) Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), meanwhile, asked Facebook why controversial conspiracy site Gateway Pundit had seen a traffic drop in recent months. (Facebook declined to address specific pages but said it is always tinkering with the News Feed to show users the content they want.)

The line of questioning enraged committee Democrats, including Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who rebuked Republicans for pushing an “imaginary narrative” of censorship. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) later called it a “dumb hearing.” Many in the party also demanded Congress focus its time on more pressing issues, including Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation online. For some, that offered an opportunity to assail President Trump.

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In response, though, tech companies once again sought to stress their neutrality. “Our success as a company depends on making Twitter a safe space for free expression,” said Nick Pickles, a policy aide who testified on behalf of Twitter.

“We have a natural and long-term incentive to make sure our products work for users of all viewpoints,” said Juniper Downs, who handles policy issues for Google-owned YouTube.

The hearing Tuesday exposed lingering frustrations among Democrats and Republicans alike with tech giants and the way they police their platforms — and their continued inability to address even shared concerns, such as the spread of misinformation online. It was the committee’s second inquiry into perceived conservative bias, after a contentious April session — riddled with falsehoods — featuring pro-Trump bloggers Diamond and Silk.

For years, conservatives have seized on high-profile errors at major tech companies to advance the argument that they are censored online. Google, for example, drew Republicans’ ire earlier this year after search results for the California GOP briefly returned an answer from Wikipedia that linked the party to Nazis. Twitter, meanwhile, had to apologize in 2017 after it briefly blocked a congresswoman from promoting one of her tweets related to abortion. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, even admitted at a recent hearing Silicon Valley — where many tech companies call home — is an “extremely left-leaning place.”

Facebook’s fight against fake news has gone global. In Mexico, just a handful of vetters are on the front lines.

In recent months, though, some GOP lawmakers have seized on the criticisms as a way to rally voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who could become speaker of the House, previously has sought to highlight conservative bias — and fundraise off it — through ads that appeared last month on Facebook, one of the sites he has criticized.

Nevertheless, tech giants have taken the accusations seriously and adapted their business practices. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, for one, has met privately with prominent conservatives to assuage their concerns about bias, The Washington Post previously reported. Facebook has hired former senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to review its practices.

Still, leading Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee contended Tuesday there is no censorship of conservatives in the first place.

"This is such an interesting hearing, I think, motivated by a sense of persecution on the part of Republicans and conservatives that somehow [feel] they're being unfairly treated," lamented Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). "There's been no evidence whatsoever [that] I have seen or the majority has been able to provide that there's any bias whatsoever."

Instead, some Democrats sought to grill Facebook for failing to ban Infowars, the Alex Jones-founded site that has peddled numerous conspiracy theories, including one that cast doubt on the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Last week, Facebook executives said Infowars does not “violate the community standards.”

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Monika Bickert, the company’s head of global policy management, stressed in response that Facebook removes all content “that violates our policies” but added “at a certain point we would also remove” a page or profile as well, without providing details.

Amid the political theatrics and heated exchanges, though, Republicans still threatened the tech industry. They repeatedly raised the possibility they could weaken a portion of federal law that shields online platforms from being held liable for the content posted by their users.

The provision, known as Section 230, was adopted in 1996. “But the Internet of today is almost nothing like the Internet of 1996," Goodlatte said. ”Congress must evaluate our laws to ensure that they are achieving their intended purpose."