CEOs from Facebook, Twitter and Google sat before Congressional committees for questioning Thursday, where members demanded answers for alleged bias against conservative voices and their roles in the storming of the Capitol building earlier this year.
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai sat for the joint hearing, “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.”
The Energy and Commerce Committee and its related subcommittees hosted the hearing, which is the latest grilling from Congress over allegations of bad behavior by tech giants.
“Our nation is drowning in disinformation driven by social media,” Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.), who chairs the Communications and Technology subcommittee, said to kick off the hearing.
“Your companies need to be held accountable,” he added.
Democrats at the hearing focused on the breach of the Capitol building in January, blaming social media sites for allowing users to organize the protest and share articles questioning the integrity of the election. They also blamed algorithms for allegedly referring users to videos containing COVID-19 disinformation or white supremacist pages.
Republicans mostly preferred calling out the tech companies’ bias against conservative voices as well as safety of children using their platforms.
Taking heat from both sides of the aisle, the tech leaders sought to find a middle ground and show the problem is bigger and more complex than their algorithms.
Zuckerberg preempted the hearing earlier this week with a proposal that laid out changes to Section 230, the regulatory framework that currently governs the sites. Zuckerberg called for more transparency from tech sites in how they regulate content, clear standards for handling illegal content, and more lax rules for smaller sites that don’t have the resources to regulate their sites with the same strictness as larger companies.
“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it,” Zuckerberg said in his testimony. “Platforms should not be held liable if a particular piece of content evades its detection—that would be impractical for platforms with billions of posts per day—but they should be required to have adequate systems in place to address unlawful content.”
Republicans held similar hearings during the Trump administration, though they focused on bias and the silencing of conservatives on their platforms. Republicans hit those themes again in today’s hearing.
“We are all well aware of Big Tech’s ever increasing censorship of conservative voices and their commitment to serve the radical progressive agenda by influencing a generation of children and removing, shutting down, or cancelling any news, books, and, now, even toys that aren’t considered ‘woke,’” said Rep. Robert Latta (R-Ohio). “This is fundamentally un-American.”
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone sent a memo out ahead of the hearing that summarized the concerns Democrats repeatedly voiced in their questioning.
“The dirty truth is that they are relying on algorithms to purposefully promote conspiratorial, divisive, or extremist content so they can rake in the ad dollars,” Pallone said. “This is because the more outrageous and extremist the content, the more engagement and views these companies get from their users. More views equal more money. That is why you are here today, Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Pichai, and Mr. Dorsey. You have failed to meaningfully change after your platforms played a role in fomenting insurrection, in abetting the spread of COVID-19, and trampling Americans civil rights.”
A recurring theme are the company’s algorithms, which take information from user’s internet data and use it to recommend related content. Algorithms are key to keeping users on the tech sites, but they have become a major regulatory headache for the tech leaders.
“Users of these platforms often engage more with questionable or provocative content, thus the algorithms often elevate or amplify disinformation and extremist content,” Pallone’s memo continues. “Facebook, Google, and Twitter also have access to vast swaths of user data that allows them to microtarget content to users who would be more susceptible to disinformation and extremist content.”
Members of the committee called for changes to regulation and stricter standards for the tech giants, but those calls have come for years without substantive change.
Now, it seems Zuckerberg is offering to agree to regulations, albeit on his terms.
“In addition to concerns about unlawful content, Congress should act to bring more transparency, accountability, and oversight to the processes by which companies make and enforce their rules about content that is harmful but legal,” Zuckerberg said in his testimony. “While this approach would not provide a clear answer to where to draw the line on difficult questions of harmful content, it would improve trust in and accountability of the systems and address concerns about the opacity of process and decisionmaking within companies.”
The Energy and Commerce Committee Chair, though, doesn’t agree.
“The time for self-regulation is over,” Pallone said. “It is time we legislate to hold you accountable.”