Democrats and Republicans grilled Facebook, Google and Twitter at a highly partisan congressional hearing Wednesday that exposed differing views and deep distrust about the power of Silicon Valley to police the web.
Senate lawmakers had invited the three tech giants’ top executives to testify as part of a broad review of decades-old federal laws known as Section 230 that spare social media sites from being held liable for the posts, photos and videos they allow or remove. Many members of Congress increasingly have come to see the rules as outdated, and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday also said he believes it is necessary to “update the law.”
But the hearing instead left Facebook, Google and Twitter facing conflicting pressures -- from Democrats who say they should patrol their sites and services more aggressively and Republicans who felt the companies should have a more hands-off role with most political speech. The mixed signals threatened to add new complications to the tech giants’ already controversial work to protect the world’s most popular digital communications channels from abuse. And it evoked the lingering, widespread unease in Washington with the political and economic leverage the three companies have amassed and the ways they seek to wield it.
“Democrats often say that we don’t remove enough content, and Republicans often say we remove too much,” Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks. “The fact that both sides criticize us doesn’t mean that we’re getting this right, but it does mean there are real disagreements about where the limits of online speech should be.”
The nearly four-hour session was rife with hyperbole and misstatement sometimes on the part of lawmakers themselves, in a reflection of the country’s many schisms -- and the stakes for Silicon Valley six days out from Election Day.
Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee seized on the hearing to attack Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey over allegations they deliberately censor conservatives, including President Trump, emphasizing the power they say tech companies wield over political speech. All three tech giants denied they harbor any political biases, and GOP lawmakers provided scant evidence for their claims. But the party’s panel members insisted anyway on Wednesday that Silicon Valley sought to tip the political scales in its favor.
“Who the hell elected you?” GOP Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) railed against Twitter’s Dorsey in one of the most heated exchanges. He and other Republicans assailed the company over its initial decision this month to block links to a story by the New York Post about Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, which had contained unverified information about his business dealings. The Washington Post has not been able to verify the documents.
"Why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC," Cruz continued, "silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?"
“We’re not doing that,” responded a more measured Dorsey, marking one of many attempts by the Twitter chief executive and his peers to assuage GOP concerns. He acknowledged Twitter did err in its earlier decision to block the link, which is now allowed on the site. “We realize we need to earn trust more, we realize that more accountability is needed, to show our intentions and show our outcomes.”
Democrats, on the other hand, fired back that Republicans sought to use the hearing to apply political pressure on the industry as Americans cast their 2020 ballots. Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) said GOP lawmakers only convened the session to “bully” social-media sites into giving Trump and his fellow conservatives more favorable online treatment. He and others pointed to a litany of examples in which tech giants -- seeking to crack down on harmful misinformation -- had taken action against Trump and his allies.
“We have to call this hearing what it is: it’s a sham,” Schatz said. “This play my colleagues are running did not start today, and it is not just happening here in the Senate; it is a coordinated action across the government.”
All three tech executives labored to emphasize their political impartiality in testimony delivered over video-conferencing software to committee lawmakers, many of whom also attended virtually from back in their home states. “Let me be clear: We approach our work without political bias, full stop,” said Pichai in his opening remarks to the committee. “To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission.”
The three tech executives’ testimony -- on the eve of the 2020 election -- follows four years after Russian agents sought to stoke social unrest on social media in a bid to undermine the last presidential race. Entering the Senate hearing, Facebook, Google and Twitter explained that they had made great strides in enhancing their content-moderation practices -- hiring more reviewers, spending billions of dollars and improving their technologies and policies so they can more aggressively and consistently identify harmful content across the web.
But the upgrades hardly satisfied some lawmakers, who pointed Wednesday to a wave of hate speech, terrorist content, election disinformation and other harmful posts, photos and videos that still proliferate on social media. Members of Congress and tech leaders alike acknowledged Wednesday that the threats had not dissipated in the four years since the Kremlin’s online siege.
“Social media is so pervasive in the daily lives of Americans and traditional media outlets that it can be weaponized to manipulate the public discourse and destabilize institutions,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), warning that a wide array of adversaries had come to adopt Russia’s playbook.
Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, meanwhile, raised the potential for “real-world violent threats” to be incubated on Facebook, where a group of suspects earlier this year had started planning an attack on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“We identified that signal to the FBI six months ago,” Zuckerberg said in response, seeking to defray the concerns. “That’s part of our routine in how we operate.”
The incidents have galvanized a new drive on Capitol Hill to rethink Section 230, as well as a slew of legislative proposals that might open the door for the government to hold Facebook, Google and Twitter liable for their decisions about what to allow and prohibit online. Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey each sought to defend Section 230, arguing it is what allows them to keep their platforms open to expression.
But the loose congressional consensus for reform broke down over Republicans’ allegations of political bias, which a wide array of critics -- including free-speech advocates and congressional Democrats -- see as an attempt to shield conservatives from scrutiny.
Republican leaders have ratcheted up their attacks on the tech industry particularly as Facebook and Twitter have come to take a more aggressive approach to harmful content, including tweets and other posts shared by President Trump. The two tech giants have labeled, limited or fact-checked some of his most controversial claims about the coronavirus and the 2020 election, fearing the president’s comments about the pandemic threaten public health and his attacks on mail-in balloting could undermine faith in American democracy.
Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), a Republican on the Commerce Committee, on Wednesday blasted Dorsey and other tech executives as “unelected elites in San Francisco or Silicon Valley deciding whether my speech is permissible.” Another GOP panel member, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), faulted Facebook, Google and Twitter for deciding “what speech gets to be amplified and suppressed.” At one point, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) even appeared to attack Pichai, the chief executive of Google, for employing an worker who previously had said “unkind things about me.”
Democrats, meanwhile, rejected Republicans’ lines of questioning. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal -- who said he had sought to reform Section 230 for nearly 15 years -- said Republicans’ comments instead betrayed their efforts to “bully and browbeat the platforms here to try to tilt them toward President Trump’s favor.” Others focused their attention elsewhere: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) fretted lawmakers weren’t devoting more of their time and attention to issues including privacy and antitrust.
Trump in recent months has blasted the industry, signed an executive order to enhance the government’s power over political speech and encouraged Republican state officials to investigate big tech. On Wednesday, in the midst of the hearing, he tweeted a new attack to his 87 million followers, telling them Congress should “Repeal Section 230!”
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D) said the efforts combined still aimed to “feed a false narrative about anti-conservative bias and to intimidate big tech so it will stand idly by” as the election nears its end.
“The issue today is not that the companies are taking too many posts down,” he said. “The issue today is that companies are leaving too many posts up.”
Senate lawmakers concluded their hearing with Facebook, Google and Twitter after nearly four hours of highly partisan questioning — and bickering, often with each other.
Senate lawmakers wrapped up roughly at the time they predicted in large part because four committee members did not attend. “That’s the only reason my prediction was the least bit accurate,” said Wicker, the committee’s chairman, to wrap the session.
The session offered few bombshells about the tech giants’ practices, but it did serve to illustrate the wide divisions over Republicans’ allegations of bias against conservatives — charges that the tech giants deny and Democrats see as an attempt to secure favorable treatment for President Trump in the 2020 election.
For Facebook and Twitter, however, the end of the hearing does not mark the end of their time on Capitol Hill: Another panel of lawmakers is aiming to grill Zuckerberg and Dorsey about their content-moderation policies next month.
Sundar Pichai has been the CEO of Google for five years and the head of its parent company, Alphabet, for one year. In addition to being a prolific executive of one of the world’s largest technology companies, he’s testified in front of Congress three times and met with individual lawmakers over the years.
Early in the session, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) even said, “I think Google has more power than any company on the face of the planet.”
However multiple senators Wednesday struggled to pronounce Pichai’s name. Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) all mispronounced his last name at times. Variations included Pi-kay and Pich-ay. Few people said Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg’s last name incorrectly, except a brief moment when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said “Zuckerman” and corrected himself.
Pichai, who was born in India, is the only non-White executive testifying. Some hearing watchers took to social media to say it was a sign of disrespect or racism, similar to the way republican lawmakers and commentators have mispronounced vice-presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris’s first name.
President Trump appeared to be following developments from the tech hearing on the Hill on Wednesday, at least based on his tweets.
Trump tweeted his support of repealing Section 230, the law that protects Internet companies from much legal liability. The president has been pushing for changes to the law regularly since May, when he signed an executive order calling for it to be reconsidered after Twitter put a fact check label on two of his tweets for the first time.
“So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse,” he tweeted. “Repeal Section 230!”
The hearing before the Senate was intended to focus on the law, but that topic has largely taken a back seat to unsubstantiated allegations of bias against conservatives and questions about moderation of disinformation in the lead up to the election.
Zuckerberg reiterates promises to protect the election
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) used his seven minutes of question time to get Zuckerberg to reiterate promises he has previously made about protecting the U.S. election.
Markey asked Zuckerberg whether he would commit to banning premature declarations of victory by political campaigns. He also asked about banning posts by President Trump if he encourages violence, as well as stopping “all group recommendations until election results are certified.”
Zuckerberg gave Markey a firm yes to the first two questions and a partial yes to the third.
Facebook has previously said that any post prematurely declaring victory will get a label attached to it that shows the actual vote tallies and other accurate information. Posts encouraging violence at the polls, or violence in general, are banned outright.
In terms of groups, Markey noted that groups have become breeding grounds for hate and misinformation and that Facebook’s algorithms have fostered that problem by actively recommending people to problematic groups.
Zuckerberg said the company had disabled group recommendations for groups that deal with political or social issues.
“Democracy could be seriously challenged next Tuesday evening” or in the days after, Markey said. He said the tech companies have “a lot of responsibility” on their shoulders in the coming days.
“We’re going to take that as a commitment that you will do that,” Markey said to Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg calls militant groups organizing online a ‘big area of concern’
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) questioned Zuckerberg about the organizing of militant groups on Facebook, saying that many people reported troubling posts online before the fatal shooting of two people in Kenosha, Wis., in August.
Zuckerberg said in August that Facebook erred by not taking down an event that called for armed civilians to defend the streets in Kenosha.
Zuckerberg acknowledged to Baldwin during the hearing that militant groups organizing online is a “big area of concern” for the company.
“In this period, where I’m personally, I’m worried about potential of increased civil unrest, making sure that those groups can’t organize on Facebook may cut off some legitimate uses, but I think they will also preclude greater potential for organizing any harm,” Zuckerberg said.
He said the company is now in a “stronger place” to moderate those policies than it was in August.
Still, Facebook has also struggled to remove debunked claims related to QAnon even months after cracking down on the issue.
Tech executives warn lawmakers they see continued foreign interference attempts ahead of election
The chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter promised to continue to push back against foreign interference during the hearing.
Pichai said Google is working with other companies and intelligence agencies and is publishing transparency reports about foreign interference on its services. In June, the company disclosed an effort from Iran targeting the Trump campaign, as well as one from China targeting the Biden campaign. He said most of the efforts were phishing attempts.
“It’s an area where we would need strong cooperation with government agencies moving forward,” Pichai said.
Dorsey said that Twitter previously disclosed actions it took against influence campaigns originating from Iran and Russia. Dorsey said limiting such activity “remains a priority” for the social network.
Zuckerberg said Facebook sees continued attempts to interfere in its service from Russia and other countries, especially Iran and China.
“We also see an increase in domestic operations around the world,” Zuckerberg said.
Tech executives got down to dollars and cents when they talked about how much they spend on moderators who review content for their sprawling platforms, which includes everything from YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and even apps in Google’s app store.
Zuckerberg said the company spends “upwards of three or more billion” dollars a year on its 35,000 content moderators, who are largely third party contractors and not full employees. Pichai said that company spends at least $4 billion on its workforce of more than 10,000 contractor moderators.
These amounts are relatively small compared to the billions of dollars in revenue Facebook and Google reap each quarter.
Twitter’s Dorsey was the only executive who didn’t answer the question from Jerry Moran (R-KS) with specifics. That is because Twitter, a much smaller company, has far fewer moderators than the other two giants. As of last year, Twitter had roughly 1,000 moderators.
Dorsey deflected by saying the company sought to remain “flexible.”
Democrats raise fears that big tech hearing is an attempt to ‘bully’ Silicon Valley
Democratic lawmakers continue to blast Republicans out of a belief that the hearing Wednesday is merely an attempt to “bully” Facebook, Google and Twitter into giving President Trump favorable treatment online.
The most stinging indictment came from Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), who said the timing of the gathering — and the questions GOP lawmakers so far had lobbed at the executives — reflected an attempt to game the referees and steer them toward President Trump’s favor.
“I have never seen a hearing so close to an election on any topic,” Schatz began, arguing that the Senate is supposed to stay out of such matters “This is bullying, and it is for electoral purposes.”
Schatz added the Republicans had worked these tactics for years with great success — and the tech giants had “bent over backwards and overcompensated” in response. “Simply put, the Republicans have been successful in this play,” he continued, calling the inquiry a sham. “My colleagues are trying to run this play again, and it is an embarrassment.”
Other Democrats have been similarly pointed in their criticism.
“We’re on the verge of a massive onslaught in the integrity in our elections,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.). “President Trump has indicated he will potentially interfere by posting disinformation on Election Day or the morning after. The Russians have begun already interfering in our elections. We’ve already seen briefings that are chilling about what they are doing.”
In recent months, Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their enforcement efforts against Trump, particularly limiting the reach of his tweets and other posts that seek to cast doubt on mail-in voting, which generally is seen as safe and secure. Trump and his allies, meanwhile, have attacked these actions as a form of anti-conservative bias.
In an exchange with Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Zuckerberg took a moment to tout the company’s progress in disrupting more than 100 disinformation networks attempting to interfere in elections around the world.
That should give the American people “some confidence” going into the election, he said.
But Zuckerberg said that it was ultimately the U.S. government’s responsibility to stop countries like Russia from meddling in U.S. democracy.
Half of the networks Facebook has disrupted are attempting to influence their own countries and are not examples of foreign interference, he added.
Policing domestic content is a greater challenge for social media companies because the line between suppressing authentic speech and removing potentially harmful disinformation is harder to draw.
Section 230 takes backseat at hearing about ... Section 230
Senators have asked about perceived anti-conservative bias. They have drilled the CEOs about their handling of President Trump’s posts. Some have excoriated those across the aisle for holding the hearing at all.
But they have only lightly touched on the law that the hearing is named for: Section 230, a provision that acts as a liability shield for Internet companies from what their users post online.
The hearing was purportedly called to discuss possible updates to the law, something lawmakers from both parties agree needs to be considered.
Instead, many senators asked questions about the topic that has dominated many congressional hearings with Big Tech CEOs in the past two years: unsubstantiated claims from Republicans of bias against conservatives.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) grilled Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about labeling Trump’s tweets and listed tweets by other users, including a Chinese official, that he criticized Dorsey for being too slow to respond to or taking no action at all.
“We have taken action on tweets from leaders all around the world, including the president,” Dorsey said, defending the decision.
Small plants, windows, and neutral walls. Conferencing in from their remote locations, tech executives Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai each choose bland backgrounds for their video backgrounds.
New video-testifier Dorsey looked the most like a normal person. He sat in front of a white wall with a crooked sliver of window on one side and a hint of a plant on the right, like many workers who might sign in from their laptops for an early morning Zoom call. Zuckerberg upgraded from his previous all white background, sitting in front of a blue curtain and healthy plant, giving the space a hotel or conference room vibe. And Pichai once again had the sharpest set. Though a different background than during the antitrust hearing, it had the same feel: prop vases, a stack of books with the titles facing away and, yes, a plant.
The witnesses appeared to have ditched their normal Silicon Valley casual wear for more Congress-friendly suits and ties — though Twitter’s Jack Dorsey’s lengthy beard covered any view of what he was wearing under his jacket.
Sen. Ted Cruz tears into Jack Dorsey, criticizing the company’s handling of a New York Post article
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) aggressively questioned Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, as the lawmaker asserted that tech giants “collectively pose the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.”
“Twitter’s conduct by far has been the most egregious,” Cruz said.
The Texas senator particularly focused on Twitter’s handling of the New York Post’s Twitter account. Twitter initally locked accounts that had shared links to the New York Post articles, and it would not allow them to start tweeting until they deleted the stories. Dorsey told Cruz that the New York Post would be able to begin tweeting again once they removed links to the articles. They then would be able to reshare them, as Twitter stopped blocking new posts linking to the articles following a reversal of its policies on hacked materials.
Dorsey maintained a calm demeanor as Cruz became increasingly agitated during the questioning and accused the company of wielding too much power over media outlets and making decisions that benefit Democrats politically. Dorsey denied Cruz’s accusations.
“This is why I opened this hearing with calls for more transparency,” Dorsey said. “We realize we need to earn trust more. We realize more accountability is needed to show our intentions and to show the outcomes.”
When pressed by Cruz, Dorsey denied that Twitter has an ability to impact elections. Dorsey said that people had other choices for social networks.
“I find your opening answers absurd on their face,” Cruz said, attacking Dorsey.
Zuckerberg said the company already did “a little bit” of off-ramping. For example, if people are searching for white supremacist terms or organizations, the company has programs to direct people to content designed to help people leave hate groups. When people search for such terms in the U.S., they are directed to Life After Hate, an organization founded by former violent extremists that provides crisis intervention, education, support groups and outreach.
Facebook acknowledged making mistakes related to the violent events of the summer. Zuckerberg also said such groups are no longer in the recommendations system.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MI), pushed Zuckerberg further when he said Facebook was about more positive things, such as getting notified when a person’s cousin has a baby.
“I’m not talking about the cousins and babies here, I’m taking about the conspiracies," said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MI). “I think it’s been corrosive.”
Top Republicans seek to raise money off political censorship allegations
Republicans aren’t just attacking Facebook, Google and Twitter over allegations that they are biased against conservatives. They’re increasingly raising money off the claims, too.
High-profile GOP candidates and campaigns, including Trump’s 2020 reelection effort, historically have blitzed social media with ads alleging that those sites are censoring them and their allies. Their efforts illustrate a hard truth about Wednesday’s congressional hearing: Republicans’ interest in Silicon Valley is as much about politics as it is policy.
The fundraising activities have been on full display on Facebook, which compiles a cache of ads that run on its service — data that shows the right has great reach with its paid political speech. The most prolific of the lot is Trump and his campaign, which regularly have taken to the world’s largest social network to rile supporters about allegations of conservative bias.
“BREAKING NEWS: Twitter wants to censor YOU,” read one collection of 132 ads commissioned by the Trump campaign into September that featured a video of the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and led viewers to a site that asked for donations.
“Silicon Valley Elites shouldn’t get to dictate what you say,” the ad continued. “They will stop at NOTHING to silence us.”
The Trump campaign long has run such ads, and it has paid for similar spots recently on Vice President Pence’s Facebook page, the data shows. But it is not only Trump trying to monetize the attacks on tech giants: Conservative-leaning groups, including the Heritage Foundation, and Republican elected officials, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), similarly have sought to activate supporters over claims of bias in recent years, the data shows.
Cruz, for his part, is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and questioned the tech executives Wednesday. But he and other Republicans are limited in their ability to raise money off the hearing, as Facebook this week began enforcing a political-advertising blackout ahead of Election Day.
Updated January 8, 2021
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