A big ticket Congressional grilling of Facebook, Google and Twitter less than a week before a bitterly polarised US Presidential election delivered on its promise of fireworks.
However, the explosive allegations and noisy outbursts were reserved not as much for the CEOs as it was between the Republicans and Democrats of the Senate committee shadow fighting among themselves.
Six days before the elections, on Wednesday, 28 October, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey testified before the US Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, 28 October, on a range of “bad behaviour” issues related to moderation of content on social media platforms.
The bitterness, however, of a visibly acrimonious election campaign between US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden loomed large over the hearing and was evident in the tone and exchanges among the Senators.
While Republican Committee members attacked the CEOs for “censoring” conservative voices, Democrat members called out the hearing organised by the Republican majority committee as a “sham”, a “cheap stunt” and “nonsense” aimed at discrediting the platforms for taking action against right-wing speech and “bullying them.”
“The truth is our Republican colleagues arranged this hearing less than a week from election day for one specific reason - to make a last ditch case based on shoddy evidence that these companies are censoring conservative voices,” Democratic senator Jon Tester said, summing up the frustration on the blue side of the committee.
Trump Makes Presence Felt in Hearing
While the hearing was convened specifically to grill CEOs about the legal immunity Internet companies enjoy in content moderation under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the questioning from Republicans reflected Trump’s opposition to the law.
Not surprisingly then, in the middle of the hearing, Trump tweeted: “So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!”
“It is also crystal clear that the directive to hold this hearing comes straight from The White House,” Senator Tester had claimed during his allotted questioning time.
"The idea that we should have a sobering hearing about putting the reigns on big tech quite frankly doesn’t pass the smell test. Today, this hearing is about electoral politics." - Jon Tester, Democratic Senator from Montana & member, Senate Commerce Committee
This Hearing Is a Sham: Democrat Committee Members
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation has 14 Republican members and 12 Democrats. Commonly referred to as the Senate Commerce Committee, it is chaired by Republican from Mississippi, Roger Wickers.
Wickers, while trying to appear non-partisan could do little as the cracks between the Committee members and faced barbs himself as well.
“There is a national election in six days Mr Chairman. You had nearly two years to hold this hearing and it's happening six days before the election,” Democrat from Montana Jon Tester said.
“The idea that we should have a sobering hearing about putting the reigns on big tech quite frankly doesn't pass the smell test. Today, this hearing is about electoral politics,” he added.
Demcrat from Hawaii, Senator Brian Schatz was even more blunt. While refusing to ask any questions as a mark of protest against holding the hearing so close to elections, he said, “We have to call this hearing what it is, it’s a sham,” adding, “this is nonsense.”
A Republican vs Democrat Pre-Election Showdown
Democrat Senator Jacky Rosen, perhaps, summed up the subtext of the hearing, telling the CEOs that the Republicans are saying: "You're doing too much to stop the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech on your platforms. I'm here to tell you you're not doing enough."
Her assessment wasn’t off the mark, as a statistic by The New York Times revealed that of the 81 queries posed by Republican lawmakers, 69 were about censorship. Most of them revolved around labelling and restricting posts by Trump for factual inaccuracy or inciting violence.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, was the main recipient of Republican ire, drawing 48 of their questions, compared to 21 for Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and 12 for Sundar Pichai of Google.
Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas, accusing the platforms’ moderation policies as an attack on free speech claimed, "The three witnesses we have before this committee today collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat to free and fair elections,”
Senator Schatz, in one of the strongest indictments among the Democrat members said, “What we are seeing today is an attempt to bully the CEOs of private companies into carry out a hit-job on a Presidential candidate.”
The anger at the timing of the hearing was a common refrain among several Democrats.
Dorsey Defends Taking Action on Trump Tweets
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey met with a barrage of questions, most of them centered around the platform’s decisions to label US President Donald Trump’s tweets for factual accuracy and taking down posts by the New York Post critical of presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Dorsey defended Twitter’s decision to label a tweet from Trump that suggested mail-in voting could lead to fraud, after he was pressed on the matter by the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee Roger Wickers.
“As we think about enforcement, we consider severity of offline harm, and we act as quickly as we can,” Dorsey said.
“We have taken action on tweets from leaders all around the world, including the president. And we did take action on that tweet, because we saw the confusion that might occur, and we labeled it accordingly.”
He faced more questions from Senator Ted Cruz who attacked him hard for taking down posts by Trump and news articles critical of Biden. Cruz, who said he was concerned at Google’s power and its abuse of it, saved his strongest words for Dorsey.
"“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report?” " - Ted Cruz, Republican Senator to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey
Dorsey said when users sign up for Twitter, they agree to its terms of service. This attack came in the context of Twitter removing a New York Post article about Hunter Biden.
Dorsey, in response to Cruz’s questioning also said Twitter does not have the ability to influence elections because there are ample additional sources of information.
Zuckerberg Promises to Protect Elections; Pichai Faces Few Questions
While Mark Zuckerberg received the highest number of questions from Democratic lawmakers, 14 out of 21 according to The New York Times Tally, Google’s Sundar Pichai managed to avoid the ire of both aisles of the committee.
During his replies, Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook had 35,000 content moderators working around the US elections and that the company had spent “upwards of three or more billion” dollars. In comparison, Pichai said Google spends at least $4 billion on a team of over 10,000 moderators.
Zuckerberg responded with a firm “yes” when asked by Democrat senator Edward Markey whether he would commit to banning premature declarations of victory by political campaigns.
The Facebook CEO, in an important statement, said that militant groups organising on his platform is a “big area of concern” for the company.
“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 organising any harm,” Zuckerberg said.
In August, Zuckerberg had acknowledged that Facebook erred by not taking down an event that called for armed civilians to defend the streets in Kenosha, where an armed protester fatally shot two individuals.
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