Republicans on the committee expressed concerns that Facebook, Google and Twitter made decisions about how to moderate content in ways that were slanted against conservatives, pointing to the increasing attention the issue has attracted from the party’s base.
They retold anecdotes in which conservative lawmakers or media outlets had seen their content restricted or deleted on the three services. They did not present evidence that there was systematic bias across the services.
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Commerce Committee chairman, and Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado both questioned Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, about instances in which Twitter had labeled President Trump’s tweets but had not done the same for officials in repressive governments.
“Mr. Dorsey, your platform allows foreign dictators to post propaganda, typically without restriction,” Mr. Wicker said, “yet you typically restrict the president of the United States.”
Many of the committee’s conservatives also expressed their wariness of drastic changes in the law. Mr. Wicker said he had not yet backed a full repeal of Section 230, which protects the companies from liability for posts uploaded by users. And Mr. Gardner, who is facing a tough re-election race, said that lawmakers “have to be very careful and not rush to legislate in ways that stifle speech.”
“I don’t like the idea of unelected elites in San Francisco or Silicon Valley deciding whether my speech is permissible on their platform,” Mr. Gardner said, “but I like even less the idea of unelected Washington, D.C., bureaucrats trying to enforce some kind of politically neutral content moderation.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas, focused on Twitter’s handling of a recent article in the New York Post about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter. The company initially restricted the spread of the article.
“Mr. Dorsey who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear,” Mr. Cruz said.
Democrats took a very different approach than Republicans in their questioning of the tech chief executives on Wednesday, prodding them about their efforts to stem the spread of disinformation and extremism. They also accused Republicans of holding the hearing to benefit President Trump.
“I want to know first why this hearing comes six days before Election Day, and it — I believe we are politicizing and the Republican majority is politicizing what should actually not be a partisan topic,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.
Democrats were largely open to reforms of the Section 230 legal shield of internet companies, which protects the businesses from liability for posts by users. Instead, their complaints were directed at insufficient action by the tech platforms against misinformation that interferes with the election.
“I hope today that we will get a report from the witnesses on exactly what they have been doing to clamp down on election interference,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat in the Commerce Committee. I hope that they will tell us what kind of hate speech and misinformation they have taken off the books.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, pressed the companies on their plans for how they would respond to President Trump if he tried to delegitimize the election or call an election result too early.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said they all had plans, including working with The Associated Press for information and to provide results from local officials.
Conservatives have said for years that online social media platforms censor their views. But their evidence is largely anecdotal, and conservative accounts frequently perform extremely well online.
The charges of censorship will almost certainly play a central role in Wednesday’s hearing. Republicans like Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are likely to criticize the chief executives about how their platforms have moderated content posted by conservative politicians or right-wing media outlets.
Conservatives have seized on individual instances of content moderation to claim that there is a systemic bias against them on the platforms. In some cases, the companies have said that the content violated their policies; in other instances they have said that the moderation was a mistake.
Recently, Republicans pointed to the decision by Twitter and Facebook to restrict the sharing of stories about Hunter Biden, the son of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for president. Twitter initially said that the story violated its policy against the sharing of hacked information, but later reversed itself. Facebook has said it is restricting the story’s reach while it waits for a third-party fact checker to evaluate the claims.
In 2017, Twitter took down an ad for Ms. Blackburn’s Senate campaign after the company deemed it “inflammatory” for a line that included a reference to “the sale of baby body parts,” saying the post violated its policies. The company changed its mind a day later.
In 2016, Facebook had to answer questions from conservatives about whether its Trending Topics section, which at the time was run by human curators, not the algorithms that power its News Feed, had suppressed conservative news. The company said it found no evidence that the accusations were true.
None of these cases unearthed evidence of a systemic bias against conservative content. A 2019 study by The Economist found that Google did not favor left-leaning websites. Posts from commentators like Ben Shapiro regularly rank among the most highly-engaged on Facebook. Liberals have also had their posts flagged or removed from the platforms — groups that advocate for racial justice, for example have said that Facebook has taken their content down.
Democrats have accused Republicans of raising the issue to manipulate Silicon Valley companies into being more cautious when it comes to moderating false or misleading information posted by conservatives.
“There’s simply no reason to have this hearing just prior to the election, except that it may intimidate the platforms, who have shown themselves to be vulnerable to political blunt force in the past,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, wrote in a tweet this month about Wednesday’s hearing.
It used to be unusual to see a top tech executive face tough questioning before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But that has changed in the past few years. Now, the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter are old hands at Congressional hearings.
The hearing on Wednesday will be the fifth time Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has testified before lawmakers; the third time for Sundar Pichai of Google; and the third for Jack Dorsey of Twitter. All of the appearances have taken place in the past three years.
The hearings have been a boon to law firms in Washington that prepare the chief executives. WilmerHale has been on Facebook’s retainer for years, for example, and has now prepped Mr. Zuckerberg for all hearings since his first in March 2018.
At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, the chief executives of Twitter, Facebook and Google will deliver a full-throated defense of speech on their platforms, according to their prepared testimony, which was made public on Tuesday.
All three leaders are also set to vigorously support Section 230, the law that has shielded their companies from liability for much of the user-generated content posted to their sites — even if the law does not stay the same.
Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter, used his prepared testimony to suggest ways Congress could change Section 230 without constraining online speech.
“Without Section 230, platforms could potentially be held liable for everything people say,” he said. Companies should instead be required to provide transparency about their moderation policies, while giving users a say in which algorithms rule their news feeds and allowing them to appeal moderation decisions, he said.
Mr. Dorsey also took a swing at Facebook and cautioned against sweeping new regulations. That’s because “sweeping regulations can further entrench companies that have large market shares and can easily afford to scale up additional resources to comply,” he said. “Twitter does not have the same breadth of interwoven products or market size as compared to our industry peers.”
Sundar Pichai, who is chief executive of Google and its parent company, Alphabet, emphasized Google’s utility and value in his prepared comments. Google, which the Justice Department sued last week, accusing it of anticompetitive and monopolistic practices, provides services like search, Gmail, maps and Google Photos “for free,” Mr. Pichai said.
Mr. Pichai left his defense of Section 230 to the end of his prepared testimony and kept it brief. He said Google and its video site, YouTube, could provide “access to a wide range of information” only because of a legal framework like Section 230. He also reiterated that Google approached its work without political bias.
“To do otherwise would be contrary to both our business interests and our mission, which compels us to make information accessible to every type of person, no matter where they live or what they believe,” Mr. Pichai wrote.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in his prepared testimony that he supported Section 230. Without it, he said, companies like his might have to censor more content to avoid legal risk.
But Mr. Zuckerberg also said Section 230 needed significant changes “to make sure it’s working as intended.” He said that people across party lines had complained about how the law handles content, and that the government should legislate changes rather than rely on the companies to decide how to govern themselves.
“By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
Mike Masnick, editor of the blog TechDirt and a longtime chronicler of tech policy issues, said that while big companies like Facebook could afford the cost of complying with more restrictive updates to Section 230, smaller rivals would not be able to do the same. Like Mr. Dorsey, he argued that such changes would lock in Facebook’s dominant position in the marketplace.
“Make no mistake about it: This is Mark Zuckerberg pulling up the innovation ladder he climbed behind him,” Mr. Masnick wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.
Jack Dorsey, United States Senate, Mark Zuckerberg, Section 230, Twitter, Sundar Pichai, Facebook
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