Today's Senate hearing on immensely important legal protections for online platforms quickly turned out to be little more than an excuse for senators to accuse the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google of partisan meddling in next week's elections. The actual law under consideration for revision was mentioned only a few times in the nearly four-hour hearing, with the balance being struck by partisan disputes and, ironically, misinformation.
The hearing, which was rushed to stay ahead of the elections, was dominated by bullying and violence from Republicans and Democratic expressions of dislike. Section 230, a law seriously and justifiably under consideration for revision, was hardly a footnote.
The fact that the hearing that promised “legislative proposals to modernize the decade-old law” was thrown together at the last minute was evident from a lack of concentration or coordination. When the senators didn't mispronounce the name of Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet / Google, they asked redundant questions, presented scant and contradicting evidence of the practices they accused the companies of, and generally used the time to get healthy bites to mint with little substance.
A prime example of all of this was the case, three times separated by Republican senators, of tweets by Iranian Ayatollah Khameini calling for war and questioning the Holocaust that were not abolished, while Trump's tweets about COVID-19 contained warnings on them. Why, they kept asking, isn't this a double standard and a clear example of the bias towards Trump?
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, explained what should be a known fact by now, especially by lawmakers who pretend to have an interest in the subject: There are no guidelines for general misinformation and special attention is paid to world leaders anyway, and the Guidelines that recently resulted in warnings on tweets specifically related to public health and election-related misinformation. As you can see, this problem has already been addressed and the explanation is quite simple.
The Republican Senators avoided Section 230 altogether and used their time to berate Dorsey, Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:
- An irritated Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) called over the guests at the hearing, specifically calling these three "the greatest threat to freedom of expression in America".
- Senator John Thune (R-SD) accused the companies of not having enough "ideological diversity" in their leadership, and others asked CEOs to report their employees' party affiliations. (The CEOs said they didn't ask, though Pichai admitted, to Thune's apparent delight, that the young, well-educated tech sector is skewed to the left.)
- Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said Twitter "censored Donald Trump 65 times" and Biden zero times, even though, as Dorsey pointed out, none of Trump's tweets were actually removed.
- Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) alleged that the companies were false advertising by saying they were not politically motivated. He then asked the CEOs to provide "examples of liberal censorship". They reined in because they had to tacitly admit they were censoring, but with that caveat they set examples – which Lee dismissed as inadequate.
- Senator Ron Johnson (R-WS) accused the platforms of deliberately influencing elections, citing misinformation and political bias on Twitter for rejecting a tweet that was obviously satirical.
Despite repeated claims that the platforms were left-wing biased, the Republican contingent did not produce examples of material from Democrats that they believed should have been abolished. This seems like an important part of the argument, or it leaves open the clear possibility that Republicans are simply more breaking the rules.
Only Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) failed to receive the memo and asked constructive, informed questions about Section 230. She asked technology leaders if they saw the law's use of the term "otherwise objectionable" as a hook – all closed expansive. They unanimously (and predictably) replied that it was not and that, as Alphabet / Google CEO Sundar Pichai put it, the wording "the only reason we can be sure to intervene" in cases like the dangerous "Tide Pod Challenge" and other situations that are not expressly regulated by law. Senator Capito apparently took her answers seriously.
Most of the Democratic Senators cannot be said to have dealt with Section 230 as regards substance, but some took the opportunity to address the alleged problem at hand.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) asked about Facebook's failure to defeat the Kenosha Guard group, which, despite hundreds of complaints, actively fomented violence against protesters. She managed to find out from Zuckerberg that Facebook stopped making group recommendations based on political preferences while it worked to clean up its private groups, now notorious for conspiracies and violent militias.
Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) remembered in good time what free speech actually is: “Maybe we need another history lesson in high school – yes, free speech means people can make outrageous statements about their beliefs. What the CEOs are telling us here is how they are removing information from healthcare that is not true, that is a threat to the public, and information that is a threat to our democracy. "
The others mainly used their time to register their dissatisfaction with the obvious election-related motivations of the hearing.
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) led the pack by stating he would not attend. "I've never seen a hearing so close to an election on any subject, let alone something that so blatantly violates our obligation under the law and Senate rules to stay out of the campaign," he said . "We never do this, and there's a very good reason we don't call people in front of us to yell at them because they didn't bid during an election." This hearing is a delusion. I will be happy to attend bona fide, bipartisan hearings when the elections are over. "
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) mocked the "false narrative of anti-conservative bias" saying, "The problem is not that the companies ahead of us today are shedding too many jobs, but that they are leaving too many dangerous posts, in fact harmful content to reinforce. "Out of context, this may be an endorsement of the censorship, but it is clear that he was referring to things like deliberate disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories and public health threats.
Although Republicans tried to downplay the idea that they are "working the referees" by saying that Facebook et al. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) stated that the US government is the referee when we say we are working the referees. The FCC, Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court are the arbitrators. “He cautioned of the danger of federal laws aimed at measures like limiting the reach of the NY Post's highly suspicious story, which he believed were the right thing to do when it was difficult to find exactly what the first time around.
Sen. Tester (D-MT), obviously out of patience with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle, regretted the double standard he thought he was seeing: “We heard a lot of information out here today about where you should hire someone to look after you to ask about their political affiliation. If this business is run by a liberal, we will regulate them differently than if they are run by a conservative outfit, ”he said.
“It reminds me a lot of the Supreme Court, where you have two rules, one for a Democratic president and one for a Republican. That's bullshit, guys. “If he could have dropped the microphone, he would certainly have.
The CEOs themselves had little chance of saying a word, except in their opening speeches. When they spoke, it was mainly realized that they need to work on transparency, but that they are doing their best in unprecedented circumstances with guidelines that need to be revised daily.
However, hold on to your condolences for these poor industry captains until these companies are responsible for their role in creating the problems of mass disinformation.
This is far from being the last time we heard of this issue, but with the elections incredibly close in less than a week, the next time such a hearing is held, the circumstances will be changed.