US social media giants limited spread of a suspect news report on alleged dealings of Democrat nominee Joe Biden’s son.
Below is our coverage of Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. This is Joseph Stepansky.
A Senate hearing featuring the testimony of Facebook and Twitter CEOs Zuckerberg and Dorsey has ended.
During the wide-ranging questioning, which lasted four about four and a half hours, the tech titans defended their safeguards against disinformation in the US presidential election, and promised Congress they would take vigorous action for two special elections in Georgia that could determine which party controls the US Senate.
Republican senators, including Committee Chairman Senator Lindsey Graham, centred their complaints on censorship and anti-conservative bias against the social media platforms and pushed for stripping away some of the protections that have shielded tech companies from legal responsibility for the majority of content posted on their platforms.
Democrats also support curbing those long-held legal shields for tech companies, but focused their concern on hate speech and incitement on social media platforms that can spawn violence. US President-elect Joe Biden has heartily endorsed restricting the legal immunity for social media platforms under Section 230 of a 1996 telecommunications law.
Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn finished the day of questioning by summing up the main Republican allegation that Twitter’s and Facebook’s misinformation monitors have anti-conservative bias.
“What each of you need to realise – and you’ve heard it time and again today – you say you don’t keep [a] list,” Blackburn said. “Obviously, you have lists, because there are some of us who are regularly censored and called down by your content moderators”.
Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono asked what Twitter and Facebook policies would change for Trump once he leaves office.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg responded: “There are a small number of policies where we have exceptions for politicians under the principle that people should be able to hear what their elected officials are saying, and candidates for office. So if the president or anyone else is spreading hate speech or inciting violence or posting content that delegitimises the election or valid forms of voting, those will receive the same treatment as anyone else saying those things. and that will continue to be the case.
Twitter’s Dorsey responded: “We do have a policy around public interest where for global leaders we do make exceptions in terms of whether, if a tweet violates the terms of service, we leave it up. We leave it up behind [a label] and people are not allowed to share that more broadly. A lot of the sharing is disabled with the exception of quoting it so you can add your own conversation on top of it. If an account is not a world leader anymore, that particular policy goes away.”
Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, asked Twitter’s Dorsey why the company does not have a misinformation policy against climate misinformation.
Dorsey responded: “Misleading information is a huge problem, it’s hard to define it completely and cohesively. We wanted to scope our approach to start, to focus on the highest severity of harm.
“We focus on three areas: manipulative media which you mentioned, civic integrity around the elections specifically, and public health, specifically around COVID,” he added. “Our policies are living documents. They will evolve.”
Coons responded: “I’d urge you to reconsider that, because helping to disseminate climate denialism in my view further accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar asked Zuckerberg if every political ad on the site is reviewed by a human.
“Our policy is that we want to verify the authenticity of anyone who’s doing political or social issue advertising,” Zuckerberg said. “And I think it’s worth noting that our people reviewers are not in all cases always more accurate than the technical system.”
When pushed, Zuckerberg added: “I don’t know”.
Dorsey, when questioned again by Senator Graham about whether Facebook can be addictive, responded: “I do think like anything else, these tools can be addictive and we should be aware of that…”
“And make sure that we are making our customers aware of that,” he said.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse asked if there was “systemic bias” inside of the companies “in the execution of content moderation policies, given that your employee base is so unrepresentative of America in general”.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg responded: “I do think it’s undisputed that our employee base, at least the full-time folks, politically would be somewhat or maybe more than just a little somewhat to the left of where our overall community is.”
He added: “So I do think that that means that we need to be careful and intentional internally to make sure that bias doesn’t seep into decisions that we make.”
However, he noted that the 35,000 people doing content review for the company “are typically” not from the left-leaning Silicon Valley tech hub.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, asked Zuckerberg why a page for the Kenosha Guard militia – which “advocated violence in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake”, a Black man killed by police in the Wisconsin city – had not been removed.
Durbin noted that the page called armed individuals to come to Kenosha amid the ongoing social justice unrest, which led to the fatal shooting of two protesters by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse.
Zuckerberg said the page, which had been flagged hundreds of times, had not been banned because a new policy on militia group pages in the lead-up to the election had not been fully rolled out.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz accused Twitter of using its labelling policy “in a partisan and selective” way, particularly when it comes to tweets alleging widespread election fraud.
Cruz said he would post onto Twitter the indictment of a Texas woman who, according to local media, has been charged with 134 counts of election fraud, to see how Twitter responds.
Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy asked Zuckerberg and Dorsey if their companies had conducted election misinformation post-mortems.
Has either company conducted a “post-mortem review of election information, at how this information reads?”, he asked.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg responded: “We are commissioning and working with independent academics to enable them to do the studies themselves and to publish what they find without any intervention or permission required from Facebook”.
Twitter’s Dorsey said: “Thank you and we and we are doing the same, including opening up our APIs (application programming interfaces) to researchers to make sure that others are able to see what we may not see ourselves.”
Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee directly accused both Twitter and Facebook of “taking a very distinctively partisan approach, and not a neutral one, to election-related content moderation.”
“For example, just days before the election, Twitter suspended the account of Mark Morgan, the commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection office,” he said.
“They suspended commissioner Morgan’s Twitter account specifically for a tweet celebrating the success of the US southern border wall. Apparently, Commissioner Morgan’s tweet, his comments about the border wall, violated Twitter platform rules governing what it calls hateful conduct.”
Dorsey responded, “We evaluated his tweet again and we found we were wrong. That was a mistake and that was due to the fact that we had heightened awareness around government accounts during this time. So, there was a mistake; we reverted it.”
Lee countered that although “mistakes happen… mistakes happen a whole lot more almost entirely on one side of the political aisle rather than the other. … and the consistent theme happens to be republicans, conservatives and pro-life activists.”
California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Zuckerberg about what his concerns are “about the spread of misinformation” in Trump’s post-election posts “that they may incite violence”.
“After President Trump falsely claimed that the election was being stolen, a group called ‘Stop the Steal’ was started on Facebook,” Feinstein said, adding, “You shut the group down but substantial damage already had been done. Trump supporters, some of them armed with assault weapons, held ‘Stop the Steal’ rallies outside election offices.”
“What are your concerns about the spread of misinformation, no matter how innocent it is, or is not innocent, like Trump’s claims about the election, that they may incite violence?” she asked.
Zuckerberg responded, “Senator, I’m very worried about this, especially any misinformation or content that could incite violence and during such a volatile period like this, one of our top priorities is making sure that people don’t use our platform to organise any violence or civil unrest.”
Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn asked Dorsey about Twitter temporarily blocking mentions last month of an unverified report from the New York Post about Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
“When Twitter decided to take down the story, the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop, did you do that under your terms of service or did you do it under some other claim of authority?” Cornyn asked.
“We did it under ‘terms of service’, which, as you know, everyone agrees to when they sign up for Twitter. This was a policy around distribution of hacked materials,” Dorsey responded. “We did not want Twitter to be a distribution point for hacked materials.”
“You do realise that by taking down that story, you probably gave it more prominence and visibility than had you left it alone?” Cornyn then asked.
“We realise it and we recognise it as a mistake that we made, both in terms of the intention of the policy and also the enforcement action of not allowing people to share it publicly or privately, which is why we corrected it within 24 hours,” Dorsey said.
Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said he was “concerned that both of your companies are, in fact, backsliding or retrenching, that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation” in the upcoming dual Georgia runoffs, which will decide control of the Senate.
“Will you commit to the same kind of robust content modification playbook in this coming election, including fact-checking, labelling, reducing the spread of misinformation, and other steps, even for politicians in the runoff elections ahead?” Blumenthal asked. Both CEOs said yes.
Blumenthal added: “During the past election there was rampant disinformation on social media in Spanish-speaking sites, repeating QAnon conspiracies and false claims of election rigging. In my view, you need to do better. Will you commit to taking steps to improve content modification for Spanish-speaking communities before the Georgia runoff?”
Both CEOs said they would.
Senator Graham, during the first questioning of the hearing, asked Facebook’s Zuckerberg if his product can be addictive.
“Mr Zuckerberg, do you believe your product can be addictive?” Graham inquired.
The CEO responded: “We certainly don’t design the product in that way … I don’t think the research has been conclusive, but it is an area that we care about and study. We certainly do not want our products to be addictive.”
Republican committee chairman Graham opened Tuesday’s hearing suggesting that Facebook and Twitter displayed bias in their labelling of posts and Tweets, claiming the same standards are not enforced for other international leaders.
Graham particularly noted Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to suppress a controversial New York Post article on Hunter Biden, the provenance of which has been questioned. “That to me seems like you’re the ultimate editor,” Graham said. “The editorial decision at the New York Post to run the story was overwritten by Twitter and Facebook in different fashions.”
In contrast, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said the steps taken by Twitter and Facebook to combat misinformation and hate speech as only been “baby steps”.
While he said there were important issues to discuss in regard to those topics, Blumenthal added he was concerned Tuesday’s hearing would be a “political sideshow” for Republicans to “bully” the tech CEOs.
The Republican majority on the judiciary panel threatened Zuckerberg and Dorsey with subpoenas last month if they did not agree to voluntarily testify for Tuesday’s hearing.
Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee lambasted the two CEOs and Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, at a hearing last month for what they said was a pattern of silencing conservative viewpoints while giving free rein to political actors from countries like China and Iran.
There is no evidence that the social media giants are biased against conservative news, posts or other material, or that they favour one side of political debate over another, researchers have found. But criticism of the companies’ policies, and their handling of disinformation tied to the election, has come from Democrats as well as Republicans.
For Republicans, that criticism has focused on a series of posts and tweets from President Donald Trump that the social media sites have labelled as false or misleading, including false claims of victory in the election or unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. Democrats have focused their criticism mainly on hate speech, misinformation and other content that can incite violence, keep people from voting or spread falsehoods about the coronavirus.