Tech CEOs to face bitter and bitterly divided Congress over election posts

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WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans had a shared message for social media companies after the 2016 election: root out foreign interference, or Washington will step in.

Fast forward to 2020, and while there’s bipartisan anger over how Facebook and Twitter handled the election, there’s little agreement on what the companies did wrong. This month’s election has Republican and Democratic lawmakers more at odds than ever over what role — if any — the companies should play in patrolling contentious political disputes online.

The partisan tension will be on full display Tuesday as the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the first congressional examination of their performance since President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. And as Biden prepares to govern potentially with a still-divided Congress, it will provide a preview of the difficulties ahead for any Washington effort to turn rhetoric against the social media companies into policy.

Republicans have skewered the social media companies in recent weeks for cracking down on false and misleading election-related claims by President Donald Trump and his allies, reiterating allegations that Silicon Valley is biased against conservatives. Democrats, meanwhile, have criticized the tech titans for not doing more to limit the spread of political disinformation by the president and others that’s increasingly rooted domestically.

Lawmakers plan to use Tuesday’s hearing to solidify those positions.

“I want to focus on making certain that they don’t choose winners and losers in 2022, 2024 … These guys have got to realize that they are not God and they have no right to be blocking someone’s free speech,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Monday, referring to actions the companies took to limit the spread of false and misleading statements by Trump and his allies.

Democrats plan to hammer the companies for not taking more actions against those and other posts.

“I recognize the steps — really, baby steps — you have taken so far,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) says in his prepared remarks for the hearing. “But destructive, violence-inciting misinformation is still a scourge on both your platforms. You must do much more.”

The division marks a sharp contrast to the largely bipartisan post-mortem that took place in the wake of the 2016 elections, when lawmakers across the political spectrum condemned Silicon Valley companies for failing to thwart Russian operatives seeking to sow discord online. Though they at times disagreed about the extent to which Trump benefited from those efforts, there was a bipartisan acknowledgment that foreign adversaries shouldn’t be able to weaponize social media to meddle in U.S. politics.

When Senate Republicans hauled in executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google in 2017 to testify on Capitol Hill for the first time about Russian interference on social media during the 2016 elections, they were met by broad praise from their Democratic counterparts.

“I’m very proud of the work we’re doing on this issue, I hope it will continue, and I hope that you and your team see me and my team as loyal partners in this effort,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorim, said in his opening remarks at a hearing that October. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who chaired the panel at the time, called the topic “the national security challenge of the 21st century.”

But when social media companies started taking more action against American-made misinformation targeting the elections, as opposed to from foreign adversaries, the parties found they weren’t so aligned. Republicans bristled when posts from conservatives were labeled or taken down and accused the companies of partisan bias. Democrats watched deceptive and incendiary posts stay up for days or weeks and argued that the companies were allowing dangerous content to avoid angering the administration.

It has gotten to the point that there is a debate between the parties as to whether Tuesday’s hearing should be occurring at all.

“This hearing is not a serious one. It is a political sideshow — a public tar and feathering … The fact is that the purpose of today’s hearing is to bully and browbeat you from taking even more responsible action by threatening cuts to Section 230,” Blumenthal says in his prepared statement.

Tech executives have heard the partisan war cries before. Just days before the election, in fact, the Republican-led Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing of its own with the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter that went deep on the bias charges.

“Democrats often say that we don’t remove enough content and Republicans often say we remove too much,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said then. “The fact that both sides criticize us doesn’t mean that we’re getting this right, but it does mean that there are real disagreements about where the limits of online speech should be.”

Facebook and Twitter plan to tell lawmakers that they are still working on their efforts to stop misinformation and that they do not make decisions about content based on political affiliations.

“Our Twitter rules are not based on ideology or a particular set of beliefs. We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our Twitter rules fairly,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey writes in prepared remarks.

Social media companies are in a tough spot, but it also is a spot of their own making, said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“I think that the tech companies are in an unwinnable position,” Brookie said. Even so, he argued, the companies have put themselves in that position by creating sprawling platforms that had relatively few checks until after the 2016 election.

“This is a logical extension of where their business has put them, right in the middle of everything, as a critical resource for information, and in a way that has removed any number of gateways to reliable information,” Brookie said.

Social media critics have long argued that Facebook, Twitter and Google have engagement-driven and attention-sucking business models that reward divisive or controversial content that goes viral quickly. The companies, meanwhile, said maintaining civil discourse and enforcing policies fairly is in their long-term interest.

The partisan rancor and conflicting demands have led to rapidly changing policies and reversal on the part of the social media companies. Take the recent decision to halt the spread of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about the foreign business affairs of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Independent misinformation researchers praised Facebook and Twitter for implementing policies to hamper the sharing of hacked materials, but, after Republicans unleashed a torrent of criticism on the companies over the course of a day, Twitter reversed course.

They have also expanded their policies since the election in response to a swarm of political misinformation, largely propagated by Trump and his allies. Facebook and Twitter have slapped labels on an increasing number of Trump’s posts, for example. Facebook has also increased efforts to promote accurate information; for example, putting the results of the election at the top of user profiles and in the newsfeed to give it greater visibility.

For Silicon Valley, tuning out the political noise is not an option. For one, the companies have spent the last four years heeding calls from Washington to do better after bungling election misinformation and interference during the last election cycle. And secondly, Washington is increasingly talking about revising the law that protects them from lawsuits over what their users post or how they moderate content.

At Tuesday’s hearing lawmakers are expected to again raise the specter of rolling back that legal shield, Section 230, which Silicon Valley credits with helping create the internet. Policymakers have floated tweaking those protections to address a whole host of issues, including allegations of bias and concerns about harmful online activity, like terrorist propaganda, illegal drug sales and child exploitation.

While there’s bipartisan interest in taking aim at the legal shield — both Trump and Biden have called for its repeal — it remains unclear if there’s any path forward for legislation targeting it that seeks to address the divisive issue of political misinformation online.

Some lawmakers say they believe even a divided Congress could find some common ground.

“There is agreement that there need to be rules of the road put in place, and dealing with Section 230 is going to be one of those requirements,” Blackburn said.

One potential area for bipartisan compromise: legislation requiring companies to disclose more information about their policies and to be more transparent about their enforcement actions.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Republican Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) earlier this year unveiled a bill that would require platforms to clearly outline what their terms of service allow, to alert users of any enforcement actions against them and to allow for appeals of those decisions.

While such a move would fail to settle disputes over how aggressive companies should be in policing political speech, it may be one of the few areas all sides can agree on. Zuckerberg even broadly supported such a concept, when he testified in October that he’d support an “update” to Section 230 and voiced support for recent legislative proposals centered around transparency. Dorsey likewise backed the general idea.

But even those smaller compromises may get little air time during a hearing that’s sure to feature it’s fair share of partisan sniping.

“The hearing will likely showcase that even though both parties are angry about the status quo in tech, they’re still very far apart on the right path for reform,” said Matt Perault, director of Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy and former public policy director at Facebook.

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