Republican lawmakers led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz threatened social media companies Wednesday with regulation, echoing repeated charges from President Donald Trump and other top GOP officials that Facebook, Google and Twitter target the political speech of right-leaning users to limit their online reach.
At issue is the opaque process with which these companies make decisions on what’s allowed and not allowed on their platforms.
“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,” Cruz said in his opening remarks during Wednesday’s contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse.”
Cruz said he’d consider charging “big tech” with antitrust violations or fraud or could remove the protection from liability provided by a decades-old federal law.
Conservatives have offered no evidence of systematic efforts to suppress political speech. The Silicon Valley tech companies say they strike a balance between users’ rights to freely express themselves and keeping hate, abuse and misinformation off their platforms. They deny censorship of conservative voices but acknowledge they’ve made missteps in moderating content. They also concede that their staffers tend to be liberal.
Democrats have dismissed allegations of anti-conservative bias as a “right-wing conspiracy theory.”Liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America released a study this week that it says shows that right-leaning pages have roughly the same amount of engagement as left-leaning pages on Facebook.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, said Wednesday that Congress should increase oversight of the major tech companies over the rise of hate speech and disinformation but not over allegations of anti-conservative bias, “which have been disproved time and time again.”
“For decades, Republicans have bashed the supposedly liberal mainstream media in an effort to work the refs,” the panel’s top Democrat said. “Now that two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media, Republicans have a new boogeyman to target: big tech.”
Last month, Trump accused all three companies of liberal bias in how they police their online platforms, saying they harbor hatred “for a certain group of people that happen to be in power, that happen to have won the election” and threatened regulation in response.
Something is happening with those groups of folks that are running Facebook and Google and Twitter, and I do think we have to get to the bottom of it,” Trump said. “It’s collusive, and it’s very, very fair to say we have to do something about it.”
Allegations of anti-conservative bias has become a rallying cry in recent years for conservative figures such as Diamond and Silk and has been raised in multiple sessions on Capitol Hill.
White House ally Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, recently filed a lawsuit against Twitter and some of its users for defamation seeking $250 million in damages.
Facebook took fire last month for temporarily blocking the account of Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, after mistaking it for an automated account.
“It’s time for tech companies like Google and Facebook to start embracing the spirit of the First Amendment. Not just for their own employees, but for all of the Americans who use their platforms,” Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said during Wednesday’s hearing.
Neil Potts, public policy director at Facebook, told lawmakers that the company had spoken with dozens of members of Congress and conservative groups to assess whether it’s “unintentionally biased” against conservative viewpoints in an inquiry into allegations of bias led by former Sen. Jon Kyl of Nebraska and a team at the Washington-based law firm Covington & Burling.
“Sen. Kyl and his team are now reviewing our external and internal policies. While conducting this review, Sen. Kyl and his team have also been engaged in reviewing and providing insights into future policy changes under consideration,” Potts said at Wednesday’s hearing. “After Sen. Kyl has reviewed our policies and internal guidelines, he and his team will share feedback and suggestions for improvements.”
Facebook has been a punching bag for conservatives for years. In 2016, reports that its moderators suppressed conservative voices prompted an inquiry by the Senate Commerce Committee. Facebook said its internal investigation found no evidence of bias but held a meeting with big names from conservative political and media circles.
Last May, Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill to answer to the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the data of 87 million Facebook users was misappropriated. Conservatives capitalized on the opportunity to accuse Facebook of left-wing favoritism. “There are a great many Americans who I think are deeply concerned that Facebook and other tech companies are engaged in a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship,” Cruz said.
Zuckerberg denied Facebook’s policies are a product of its liberal cocoon in Silicon Valley but conceded that Facebook doesn’t always make the right call when removing conservative content.
“With the amount of content in our systems and the current systems we have in place to review, we have a small amount of mistakes, but that’s too many,” he said at the time. “I get how people can look at that and build that (censorship) conclusion.”
Testifying for Twitter, Carlos Monje, the company’s director of public policy and philanthropy, described Twitter as an “impartial” platform.
“Twitter does not use political viewpoints, perspectives or party affiliation to make any decisions, whether related to automatically ranking content on our service or how we develop or enforce our rules,” he told lawmakers Wednesday.
Monje said Twitter had its data scientists analyze tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate who have Twitter accounts for a five-week period. Democratic members sent 8,665 tweets and Republican members sent 4,757. Democrats on average have more followers per account and have more active followers. As a result, Democratic members in the aggregate receive more impressions or views than Republicans, Twitter said. But, after controlling for various factors, Twitter said there is no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed and a tweet by a Republican.
The social media company has had its share of scrapes with conservatives. Blackburn was barred from promoting a campaign video on Twitter because of a reference she made to Planned Parenthood. In the video, Blackburn accused the organization of selling “baby body parts.” Twitter said it prevented Blackburn from running the video as an ad because it was too “inflammatory” but later reversed that decision.
Monje repeatedly apologized to Blackburn on Wednesday.
“Following an appeal from Sen. Blackburn’s media firm, we reviewed the initial decision,” he said. “We relied upon additional context that there were no graphic images portrayed and that the concerning language was a very small portion of the overall advertisement. We then reversed the decision and apologized.”
Missing at the hearing was Google, which was represented by an empty chair. The Republican-controlled committee rejected the witness the search giant offered because he did not have “comparable seniority” to the other witnesses, Cruz said. He pledged to hold a separate hearing on political bias with Google.