‘Big tech is accustomed to living in a bubble with the same comfortable and progressive ideas…’
(Kaylee McGhee, Liberty Headlines) Facebook and Twitter executives testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill about alleged political bias and censorship on their platforms and claimed that discrimination against conservatives on the social media platforms is a “myth.”
Carlos Monje Jr, director of public policy for Twitter, told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the platform “does not use political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation” when ranking content of shutting down accounts.
“We believe strongly in being impartial,” Monje said in his opening statement, “and we strive to enforce our rules dispassionately … Our rules are not based on ideology or a particular set of beliefs.”
Republican lawmakers, however, said many Americans believe the big tech firms are biased against conservatives. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that while no one wants “government speech police,” something must be done.
“No one wants to see the federal government regulating what is allowed to be said … If we have tech companies using the powers of monopoly to censor political speech, I think that raises real antitrust issues,” Cruz said.
Cruz and other Republican senators raised the possibility of Congress removing protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online platforms immunity from what users post.
“Big tech is accustomed to living in a bubble with the same comfortable and progressive ideas. But let me tell you right now: that bubble is bursting,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said.
Most Democrats pushed back and argued Republicans’ claims were unfounded, but presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also accused Facebook of removing her campaign’s ads and said Congress should step in and breakup Facebook.
“I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor,” she said.
The top Democrat on the panel, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said the claims of censorship are “nothing more than a mix of anecdotal evidence … and a failure to understand the companies algorithms and content moderation practices.”
But Republicans argued that the companies are not transparent about their algorithms and processes, which results in a lot of uncertainty.
“This is a huge, huge problem,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, told the firms.
Potts and Monje admitted that both companies have not provided adequate information about their processes and vowed to be more transparent in the future. But Blackburn said that wasn’t enough.
Blackburn confronted Monje, who apologized for pulling her pro-life ad during her 2018 congressional campaign after Twitter deemed it “inflammatory.”
“Should Facebook allow ads urging that we save sea turtles or baby seals?” Blackburn asked Monje and Potts.
“I believe that would be fine,” Potts responded.
“Should Twitter allow ads that denounce Planned Parenthood for selling baby body parts?” she continued.
“Every ad is judged within context,” Monje responded. “We made a mistake on your ad, and I apologize.”
But Cruz pointed out that Blackburn’s pro-life ad is not the only example of conservative censorship. He pointed to a Susan B. Anthony List ad that Twitter banned, which included a quote from Mother Teresa criticizing abortion: “Abortion is profoundly anti-woman.”
“Is this hate speech?” Cruz asked.
Chuck Konzelman, the writer and director of the pro-life film “Unplanned,” also testified before the committee and said the movie faced unprecedented censorship on the social media platforms when it tried to market the movie.
“We were convinced of the advisability of advertising with Google,” he said. “But we were blocked from doing so. Google cited a policy regard abortion-related ads. Just one problem: We weren’t doing abortion-related ads. We were marketing a movie.”
Google was disinvited from the hearing because it refused to send an executive official to represent it, instead planning on sending Max Pappas, Google’s manager of external outreach and public policy partnerships.
The company said in a written statement that it works to ensure “our products serve users of all viewpoints and remain politically neutral” but it acknowledged that “sometimes our content moderation systems do make mistakes.”
Konzelman also said that when the movie set up an official Twitter account, the platform suspended it and didn’t allow users to follow it.
“Twitter apparently deleted the vast majority of those listed as ‘followers’ for our account,” he said, “reducing the number from something on the order of 200,000 to less than 200. A thousand-to-one reduction in our listed followers.”
Facebook, however, did not give the movie any problems, he said.
“Interestingly, on the one social media platform from today’s first panel where we didn’t have significant problems—on Facebook—our exposure exploded,” he said. “And I believe the film’s Facebook site had something on the order of about 12 million trailer views by the time of our theatrical debut, and nearly 18 million to date.”
Democrats continued to rail against the tech firms’ alleged liberal bias, calling Republicans’ concerns “baseless.”
“We cannot allow the Republican party to harass tech companies into weakening content moderation policies that already fail to remove hateful, dangerous, and misleading content,” Hirono said.
Republicans agreed that tech firms’ inability to control the flow of information and remove misleading content is a serious problem.
After losing his daughter in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Robert Parker told Congress that the social media giants allowed lies and misinformation to be spread about him and his family, which resulted in severe online harassment.
“Instead of simply being left to grieve in our own home, we were exposed to even more sinister people and motives,” Parker said. “Within 48 hours of my daughter’s murder, hoaxers and conspiracy theorists began spewing lies and threats about my family and me on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms.”
Cruz said big tech needs to step up and make serious changes moving forward, reminding the companies that Congress has the power to regulate if need be.
“Not only does big tech have the power to silence voices with which they disagree, but big tech likewise has the power to collate a person’s feed, so that they only receive news that comports with their own political agenda,” he said. “What makes the threat of political censorship so problematic is the lack of transparency. The invisibility. The ability for a handful of giant tech companies to decide if a particular speaker is disfavored.”