The CEOs of social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google face a new congressional grid on Thursday, focused on their efforts to stop their platforms from spreading lies and inciting violence.
It’s a familiar theme to lawmakers in recent years. But the pressure is even higher after the Jan.6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol, the rise of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, and united Democratic control of Congress and the White House. The latter could make legislative action more likely, although this is far from certain.
As malicious conspiracy theories continue to spread, lawmakers hammer at social media companies over market dominance, user data collection and practices that some say actually encourage the spread. engaging but potentially harmful misinformation. Some Republicans have also alleged, without evidence, that censorship and political bias against conservatives is another reason to hold back huge corporations.
There is growing support in Congress to impose further restrictions on legal protections regarding speeches posted on their platforms. Republicans and Democrats – including President Joe Biden when he was a candidate – have called for removing some of the protections provided by so-called Section 230 of a 25-year-old telecommunications law that protects internet companies from any responsibility for what users post.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai – whose company owns YouTube – will testify in a virtual hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The title of the session leaves no doubt as to the position of the majority Democrats: “Nation of Disinformation: The Role of Social Media in Promoting Extremism and Disinformation”.
These executives have testified on the matter at several Congressional hearings last year, sometimes under the threat of a subpoena. This time they face a more difficult dynamic and may be called upon to account for earlier promises. In a Senate hearing shortly after the November election, for example, Zuckerberg and Dorsey gave lawmakers assurances of vigorous action against disinformation.
Former President Donald Trump received special treatment on Facebook and Twitter until January, despite spreading false information, spreading false allegations of electoral fraud and spreading hate. Facebook banned Trump indefinitely a day after rioters pushed by Trump stormed the Capitol. Twitter quickly followed, permanently disabling Trump’s favorite megaphone.
Banning a sitting president from social media was an unprecedented step. So too, of course, was Trump’s heavy use of Twitter to lambast opponents, hail supporters, and spread false claims to over 80 million subscribers. He was also only the second president to have a social media presence during his tenure.
Facebook has yet to decide whether it will permanently ban the former president. The company sent the decision back to its near-independent supervisory board – a sort of Supreme Court of Facebook’s app – which is expected to rule on the matter next month.
Republicans have stepped up their complaints of alleged censorship and anti-conservative bias on social media platforms. Researchers say there is no evidence that social media giants are biased against conservative news, publications or other documents, or that they favor one side of the political debate over another.
Democrats, on the other hand, focus largely on hate speech and hate speech that can breed violence in the real world. An outside report released this week found that Facebook allowed groups – many of which are linked to the QAnon, “Boogaloo” and militia movements – to extol violence during the 2020 election and in the weeks leading up to the deadly riots. from the Capitol.
The report from Avaaz, a nonprofit advocacy group that claims to seek to protect democracies from disinformation, identified several hundred pages and groups on Facebook that it said disseminated material glorifying violence to a group. of 32 million users. Facebook acknowledged that its application of the policy “is not perfect,” but said the report distorts its work against violent extremism and disinformation.
Tech CEOs are planning a strong defense of the Section 230 accountability shield, saying it has helped make the internet the forum for free expression it is today. Zuckerberg, however, will again ask Congress to update this law to ensure it works as intended. He adds a specific suggestion: Congress could require internet platforms to obtain legal protection only by proving that their systems for identifying illegal content are up to par.
“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place to identify illegal content and remove it,” Zuckerberg said in written testimony prepared for Thursday’s hearing.
It is not certain that lawmakers will buy this argument. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, accused Zuckerberg’s plan of entrenching giant companies at the expense of smaller rivals. “Anyone working to solve real problems online should be deeply suspicious of Mark Zuckerberg’s proposals for new regulations,” Wyden said in a statement.
Pichai and Dorsey urged caution about any changes to Section 230. Regulation is important to protect the open web while limiting its harmful use, Pichai said in his written testimony. But he warned that many reform proposals “would not serve that purpose well,” and could inadvertently undermine free speech and limit the ability of platforms to protect users.
Dorsey did not directly address the issue in her written statement, but responded to recent questions about how Twitter should deal with world leaders who violate its policies. “We are currently reviewing our approach to world leaders and seeking public comment,” he said in the statement.