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

Republicans put Facebook and Twitter to the question on
censorship and the future of social media 1

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

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
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

“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. Mike Lee calls out tech CEOs for “very distinctively
partisan approach” in censoring https://t.co/fOE0Ovo3WV

— Steve Guest (@Steve Guest)1605633174.0

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

“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

“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

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