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Republicans put Facebook and Twitter to the question on censorship and the future of social media
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Republicans put Facebook and Twitter to the question on censorship and the future of social media

Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey again testified before the Senate.

Senate Republicans grilled the heads of Facebook and Twitter at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on big tech censorship in the 2020 presidential election Tuesday, calling into question the tech companies' content moderation policies and threatening government action to end perceived bias against right-leaning points of view on their platforms.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced questions on their content moderation enforcement, on examples of apparent bias against President Donald Trump's supporters and conservatives, and what the role of government should be in regulating social media platforms. Republicans came prepared with specific examples of censorship, asking about the suppression of the New York Post's Hunter Biden reports, about social media posts challenging the official results of the presidential election being flagged as misinformation, and more.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Facebook and Twitter's content moderation enforcement has convinced him to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that protects internet companies from being liable for content posted on their platforms by third parties.

Citing the suppression of the New York Post's articles, Graham accused Twitter and Facebook of exerting "editorial control" over the paper.

"What I want to try to find out is, if you're not a newspaper at Twitter or Facebook, then why do you have editorial control over the New York Post?" Graham said during his opening statement.

"They decided, and maybe for a good reason, I don't know, that the New York Post articles about Hunter Biden needed to be flagged, excluded from distribution or made hard to find. That to me seems like you're the ultimate editor," Graham continued.

"The editorial decision at the New York Post to run the story was overridden by Twitter and Facebook in different fashions to prevent its dissemination. Now if that's not making an editorial decision, I don't know what would be."

Whether Facebook and Twitter make editorial decisions by moderating content on their platforms is crucial to the debate on how government should regulate big tech. If these social media companies are providing platforms for people to use, then they are protected under Section 230 and they can't be sued, for example, for slanderous content posted by a third party that appears on their website. However, if they are making editorial decisions about the content they host on their websites, then Republicans argue they are behaving like publishers and as such would not be protected by Section 230.

Questions for Dorsey from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) focused directly on this distinction, citing Twitter's misinformation label on tweets about voter fraud as an example of an editorial action that would suggest Twitter is behaving like a publisher.

Cruz asked Dorsey directly, "Is Twitter a publisher?"

"No, we are not, we distribute information," Dorsey replied.

Reading from Section 230, Cruz defined a publisher as "any person or entity that is responsible in whole or in part for the creation or development of information provided through the internet or any other interactive computer service," then asked Dorsey if Twitter acted as a publisher by censoring the New York Post.

Again, Dorsey said Twitter is not a publisher but that it has policies and terms of service that users agree to abide by with enforcement action taken against users who violate the agreement. But Cruz accused Twitter of applying its policies "in a partisan and selective manner," criticizing Twitter for enforcing its "hacked materials" policy against the New York Post but neglecting to do so against other news outlets that reported news obtained from "hacked materials."

Continuing, Cruz said Twitter has a "star-chamber power" over speech on its platform and accused the company of making "publishing decisions" by putting warnings on statements about voter fraud that state, "Voter fraud of any kind is exceedingly rare in the United States."

"That's taking a disputed policy position, and you're a publisher when you're doing that," Cruz charged.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also raised concerns about what he called Twitter and Facebook's "distinctly partisan approach" to moderating content on their websites. Citing about an incident in October when Twitter locked U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan's account, flagging as hate speech a seemingly benign tweet about how new wall on the southern border "helps us stop gang members, murderers, sexual predators, and drugs from entering our country," Lee asked why the tweet was censored.

"We evaluated his tweet and we found that we were wrong. … That was a mistake; we reverted it," Dorsey explained. But Lee expected this answer.

"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," he said before turning to Zuckerberg and asking why Facebook "stunningly" took almost two weeks to unblock an advertisement from the Susan B. Anthony List that a third-party fact-checker mistakenly said was "partly false."

"I'm not familiar with the details of us re-enabling that ad ... it's possible that this was just a mistake or a delay," Zuckerberg said.

"I appreciate your acknowledgement of that the fact that there are mistakes. As I noted previously, those mistake sure happen a whole lot more on one side of the political spectrum than the other," Lee said. Noting that more than 90% of employees at both Twitter and Facebook donated to Democratic candidates, Lee wondered aloud if those political biases affect the apparent one-sided nature of big tech's "mistakes."

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) picked up this line of questioning, inquiring about the political leanings of Facebook and Twitter employees and asking if it's possible there's "systemic bias" within these companies.

"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," Zuckerberg said, acknowledging that his company likely leans farther left than the average American Facebook user.

Zuckerberg did point out that it employs 35,000 content moderators in locations around the nation, not just in Silicon Valley, and that it would be incorrect to assume that they all are biased against Republicans.

Dorsey said political biases are not something his company would "interview for" before acknowledging that most people perceive that his company leans left and judge Twitter's intentions based on that perception.

"If people don't trust our intent, if people are questioning that, that's a failure and that is something we need to fix and intend to fix," Dorsey said.

Sasse did break with his colleagues and express skepticism about having the federal government take action to regulate social media in response to bias.

"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.

His final question inquired about where Zuckerberg and Dorsey see the future of content moderation going over the next three or five years if the government does not act.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will increase its focus on transparency. He said Facebook has "already committed to an independent external audit" of its content moderation enforcement metrics and suggested that such a review could be part of a government regulatory framework created by Congress.

Dorsey said that a "centralized global content moderation system does not scale" and said tech companies need to "rethink" how they operate content moderation. He suggested a decentralized approach that gives users more choice about how they interact on social media.

"Having more control so that individuals can moderate themselves, pushing the power of moderation to the edges and to our customers, and to the individuals using the service is something we'll see more of," Dorsey said. "Having more choice around how algorithms are altering my experience and creating my experience is important."

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