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Senate Republicans renew their claims that Facebook, Google and Twitter censor conservatives

Sen. Ted Cruz, shown here at a hearing in December, on Wednesday accused social media companies of censoring opinions they disagreed with. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday pilloried Facebook, Google and Twitter over allegations they censor conservative users and content online, threatening federal regulation in response to claims that Democrats long have described as a hoax and a distraction.

The tensions played out over more than three hours at a Senate hearing where Cruz, the leader of the Judiciary Committee’s constitution-focused panel, pointed to reports that he said showed a “consistent pattern of political bias and censorship on the part of big tech.”

"Not only does big tech have the power to silence voices with which they disagree, but big tech likewise has the power to collate a person's feed so they only receive the news that comports with their own political agenda," Cruz said.

But Democrats sharply rebuked Cruz and his GOP allies for convening the hearing in the first place. “For decades, Republicans have bashed the supposedly liberal mainstream media in an effort to work the refs,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii). “Now that two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media, Republicans have a new boogeyman to target — big tech.”

Hirono and her Democratic peers chided Republicans for ignoring the real ills of social media — including the rise of hate speech and disinformation online. And one of the witnesses Wednesday raised concerns that Facebook and Google hadn’t been aggressive enough in the ways they police their platforms. Robbie Parker, a parent of a child killed during the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said Facebook and Google-owned YouTube long had failed to stop conspiracy theorists and others from attacking him and his family.

“They systematically failed to protect us from harassment and threats,” Parker told lawmakers, later adding: “Only when they realized it would tarnish their brand and affect them financially did they finally respond appropriately.”

Conservatives long have claimed that major social-media sites exhibit political bias, pointing to Silicon Valley’s liberal leanings and regular contributions to Democrats. Beyond that, however, experts have said there is no evidence that Facebook, Google and Twitter have deliberately sought to limit the reach of Republicans, a message that tech giants in attendance on Wednesday emphasized.

“The notion that we would silence any political perspective is antithetical to our commitment to free expression,” said Carlos Monje, Jr., the director of Public Policy and Philanthropy for the U.S. and Canada at Twitter.

But tech executives’ continued pledges to treat all political content equally have failed to sway the country’s most prominent Republicans, including President Trump, who repeatedly has claimed that Facebook, Google and Twitter are biased against the party. In March, Trump accused the industry of harboring “hatred" for a "certain group of people that happen to be in power, that happen to have won the election.”

As an example, Trump has pointed to his follower count on Twitter, which he said tends to fluctuate — a fact Twitter long has attributed to its efforts to shut down spam accounts on the platform. Still, Trump last month reiterated his threat for further scrutiny, telling reporters the government has to “do something about it.”

Opening the Wednesday hearing, Cruz on detailed a series of potential regulatory steps Congress could consider, including rethinking a longstanding federal law that spares companies from being held liable for content posted by their users. Cruz said lawmakers didn’t seek to serve as “government speech police,” but he raised the potential for further antitrust scrutiny of the tech industry.

"By almost any measure the giant tech companies today are larger, and more powerful, than Standard Oil was when it was broken up," Cruz said. "And if we have tech companies using the powers of monopoly to censor political speech, I think that raises real antitrust issues."

Cruz and his peers pointed to instances in which Facebook and Twitter erroneously applied its policies to conservative content, resulting in pro-life ads or tweets being removed from those social-media sites. One of the tweets Cruz displayed and claimed had been “blocked” — from the president of Susan B. Anthony List — claimed that abortion is “profoundly anti-women,” accompanied by a quotation from Mother Theresa. But a tweet from 2017 containing the same text and image still appeared on Twitter after a search Wednesday. A spokesman for Cruz did not immediately respond to request for comment about the tweet.

In another example, GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) highlighted a 2017 controversy in which one of her campaign ads had been briefly barred by Twitter. The company later said it had been a mistake — and repeated its apology Wednesday.

In doing so, Facebook and Twitter emphasized they had taken action in response to controversial content posted by Democrats and Republicans alike. “I can tell you we have actioned accounts on both sides of this debate,” Monje said.

Absent from the Wednesday hearing was Google. The search giant, which owns YouTube, had been invited to testify, but Cruz rejected the company’s witness. The GOP senator said he plans to hold a hearing, specifically focused on Google, in the coming weeks.