Two weeks since the United States Presidential elections, the US Senate committee once again grilled Facebook and Twitter on their actions regarding election-related content, allegations of censorship and alleged anti-right wing bias.
President Donald Trump’s claims of having won the election as well as his allegations of mass voter fraud featured prominently in the questions of both Republican and Democrat lawmakers to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckeberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
The four-and-a-half hour long hearing on Tuesday, 17 November, conducted by the US Senate Judiciary Committee, came just three weeks after a hearing of the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google on largely similar issues conducted by the Senate Commerce Committee.
The Committee, comprising 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats, is by Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who has openly supported Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud, saying the president's team deserves the opportunity to make the case. The Committee also includes Vice President-elect Kamal Harris. Harris, however, was not present at the hearing.
At Tuesday’s hearing, titled “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election”, Zuckerberg and Dorsey faced a harsh line of questioning on issues ranging from misinformation, dealing with hate speech and calls to violence, amplification of mail-in fraud allegations, content moderation policies, and antitrust issues.
A Sequel to the Pre-Election Hearing
Six days before the elections, on Wednesday, 28 October, Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey testified before the US Senate Commerce Committee on a range of “bad behaviour” issues related to moderation of content on social media platforms.
While the hearing on 17 November was as politically partisan, it wasn’t as acrimonious as the previous hearing. At the pre-election hearing by a Republican-majority Commerce Committee, explosive allegations and outbursts were reserved not as much for the CEOs as they were between the Republicans and Democrats of the Senate committee shadow fighting among themselves.
The bitterness, however, of a visibly acrimonious election campaign between US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden loomed large over the hearing and was evident in the tone and exchanges among the Senators.
Trump Looms Large Over the Hearing
The presence of President Trump, or rather his controversial tweets and posts since election day on 3 November, loomed large over the hearing as neither side seemed particularly happy about the manner in which they were handled.
Democrat Senator Diane Feinstein referred to Trump’s tweet from 16 November where he claimed “I won the election by a lot” and asked if simply adding a label went far to address to misleading claim enough while keeping the tweet up.
On the contrary, Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, grilled Dorsey on the same issue but from the other end of the spectrum. “Does voter fraud exist?” Cruz asked Dorsey, following it up with “are you an expert on voter fraud?”
Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, however, had the strongest words against Trump whom he characterised as “waging an all out war on Truth.” “What is going on now is dangerous,” Booker said referring to Trump’s recent tweets alleging mass voter fraud without any evidence, adding “A sitting president is making baseless allegations.”
Twitter CEO Under Fire From Both Sides
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey fielded dozens of questions, which could be divided neatly into two categories, from 20 senators on Tuesday.
While the Republican senators lashed out at him for adding labels to tweets by President Trump and other conservative politicians and voices, Democrats hammered the CEO for not doing enough to prevent the spread of misinformation.
Raising the issue of content moderation policies, Republican lawmakers accused Dorsey of censoring right wing speech with John Kennedey, Republican of Louisiana, asking him “to get out of the censorship business.”
Accusing Twitter of censorship and an anti-right bias, Cruz, among the more hard right voices in the Republican party, went on tell Dorsey, “you have taken a political position that voter fraud doesn’t exist.”
Dorsey, acknowledging that in some cases his company had mistakenly labeled tweets, did defend the company’s content moderation policies.
Acknowledging the challenges of moderation, Dorsey said, “We are facing something that feels impossible.”
“We are required to help increase the health of the public conversation while at the same time ensuring that as many people as possible can participate.”
Democrats Call for Greater Regulation of Social Media
Democrats on the committee kept up its criticisms of Facebook and Twitter at the hearing despite greater efforts by the companies to act on misinformation in the recent election compared to 2016.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, raised the issue of how the Facebook account of Steve Bannon, a former senior advisor to President Trump, was not taken down despite Bannon recently suggesting the beheading of Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
“You have built terrifying tools of persuasion and manipulation — with power far exceeding the robber barons of the last Gilded Age,” Blumenthal said. “You have made a huge amount of money by strip mining data about our private lives and promoting hate speech and voter suppression.”
He refered to the Earn It Act, introduced in 2020, which would strip away the immunity social media companies enjoy for user generated content and allow them to be sued.