Technology

Lawmakers question tech CEOs about content moderation in first post-election hearing

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey returned virtually to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for another round of questioning that did more to highlight the gulf between Republicans and Democrats on proper content moderation than reveal any new information.

In addition to the focus on content moderation, lawmakers asked the tech CEOs about transparency, reforms to Section 230, what would happen to President Trump’s accounts after his term in office draws to a close and antitrust issues.

Republicans spent the bulk of the hearing raising concerns about anti-conservative bias by tech platforms, an oft-repeated allegation that has not been substantiated. 

In one instance, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said that Twitter’s temporary suspension of Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan over a tweet about the U.S.-Mexico border wall was an example of social media platforms “taking a very distinctively partisan approach and not a neutral one to election-related content moderation.”

“What we’re going to see today is that mistakes happen a whole lot more, almost entirely, on one side of the political aisle rather than the other,” the Utah lawmaker added.

Dorsey said that the takedown was “a mistake, and it was due to the fact that we had heightened awareness around government accounts during this time.”

The tenor changed slightly during a discussion on how to address what GOP lawmakers see as the silencing of conservative voices.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested the industry could develop best practices rather than have the government intervene in moderation.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) made that point more explicitly when he said that although he’s a “skeptic” about how platforms moderate, a regulatory fix may not be on the cards.

“I’m more skeptical than a lot of my colleagues, I think on both sides of the aisle, about whether or not there’s a regulatory fix that will make it better instead of worse,” he explained.

Sasse cautioned his Republicans colleagues against pushing for reforms to tech laws, such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, in light of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

“I especially think it’s odd that so many in my party are zealous to do this right now, when you would have an incoming administration of the other party that would be writing the rules and regulations about it,” he said.

Democrats went the other direction, suggesting that Facebook and Twitter have not gone far enough in regulating misinformation and hate speech.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) used the example of former White House strategist Stephen Bannon to call out Facebook’s seemingly inconsistent policies. Bannon was banned from Twitter last week after calling for the beheading of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray in a video; Facebook simply took the video down.

“How many times is Steve Bannon allowed to call for the murder of public officials before Facebook suspends his account?” Blumenthal asked.

Zuckerberg defended Bannon being allowed on the platform, stressing that an account holder would have to commit “multiple offenses like that” before receiving a ban.

The hearing was the first featuring the tech executives following the general election, for which both platforms took unprecedented steps to control the spread of election misinformation.

Despite both CEOs using much of their opening remarks to talk about their work during the election, lawmakers asked very little about those efforts.

Multiple Republicans brought up concerns about the ideological makeup of their workforces, suggesting that the liberal lean of the Bay Area was influencing their content decisions.

Both CEOs said that it would be inappropriate to ask job candidates their political beliefs and that their content decisions are not ideologically driven.

Zuckerberg suggested that the move to remote work that is being driven by the coronavirus pandemic could ultimately change the ideological makeup of tech companies’ workers because they won’t all have to live in California. 

Another issue that came up was what will happen to Trump’s social media accounts once he leaves office in January.

Dorsey said that world leaders’ exemptions from some of Twitter’s policies would no longer apply to Trump after his presidency.

“If an account suddenly is not a world leader anymore, that particular policy goes away,” he said.

Zuckerberg said that Trump leaving office will not change how they treat his content. 

“If the president is spreading hate speech or promoting violence … those will receive the same treatment as anyone else saying those things, and that will continue to be the case,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) brought up antitrust concerns with big tech companies, asking at one point whether Facebook’s decision to cut off the Twitter-owned Vine led to the short-form video app’s shutdown.

“I don’t know about the intent on the other side, but I know our own experience was we found it extremely challenging to compete … and ultimately decided that the ball moved past us, and we shut it down,” Dorsey explained.

Although neither side of the aisle agreed on whether content moderation is too harsh or soft, they did seem in agreement that greater transparency on decisions would be beneficial.

“We’re going to have to have more visibility into what’s occurred and what has produced certain outcomes,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said at one point.

Both executives seemed supportive of that suggestion.

Zuckerberg explicitly called for Congress to pass regulations that would require tech platforms to release regular transparency reports that catalogue the effectiveness of their content moderation decisions.

“That way, the people who are responsible for holding all of us accountable, whether it’s journalists, Congress, academics, could have an apples-to-apples comparison about how all the different companies are doing,” he said.

Both executives also found common ground on supporting some reform of Section 230, the law that gives internet companies immunity from lawsuits for content posted on their sites by third parties and allows them to make “good faith” efforts to moderate content, while cautioning against its full rollback.

However, the hearing did little to provide clarity on how the next Congress will take on the varied concerns about content moderation.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Anthony Fauci Ben Sasse Christopher Wray Donald Trump Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Mark Zuckerberg Mike Lee Steve Bannon Thom Tillis

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