Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions about their companies’ repeated attempts to censor conservative views — which became even more obvious during this year’s presidential election — as they testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
From the beginning, Dorsey and Zuckerberg were asked to explain why each of their platforms censored a bombshell New York Post report about Hunter Biden and his foreign business dealings, which may have involved Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Twitter blocked the sharing of the article, which included emails allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden, and Facebook limited the distribution of the article and assigned a “fact check” to it.
“That to me seems like you’re the ultimate editor,” committee chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, said during his opening statement. “The editorial decision by the New York Post to run the story was overridden by Twitter and Facebook in different fashions to prevent its dissemination. Now if that’s not making an editorial decision I don’t know what would be.”
Dorsey tried to argue that Twitter’s decision to block the story was due to a 2018 policy forbidding the spread of hacked materials. There was no evidence that the Post’s story contained hacked material, as several Republicans pointed out.
“We made a quick interpretation using no other evidence that the materials in the article were obtained through hacking, and according to our policy, we blocked them from being spread,” Dorsey testified. “Upon further consideration, we admitted this action was wrong and corrected it within 24 hours.”
.@Jack explains why the N.Y. Post was blocked from sharing the Hunter Biden laptop story:
“We made a quick interpretation, using no other evidence, that the materials in the article were obtained through hacking, and according to our policy, we blocked them from being spread.” pic.twitter.com/mjGJhtStEQ
— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) November 17, 2020
Dorsey did admit, however, that Twitter was wrong to lock the New York Post out of its account. He said Twitter was physically “unable” to grant the Post access to its account until the Post deleted its tweet about the Hunter Biden story because, at the time, Twitter did not have a process allowing it to circumvent its own policies.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blasted Dorsey for not only failing to grant the Post access to its account in a timely fashion, but also for enforcing its own policies hypocritically.
“Your policies are applied in a partisan and selective manner,” Cruz said. “You claim it was hacked materials and yet you didn’t block the distribution of the New York Times story that alleged to talk about President Trump’s tax returns, even though a federal statute makes it a crime to distribute someone’s tax returns without their consent. You didn’t block any of that discussion, did you?”
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) November 17, 2020
Dorsey insisted that Twitter was not acting like a publisher when it made these decisions. But according to Cruz, the very fact that Twitter was willing and able to censor a media outlet with the fourth-highest circulation of any newspaper in American is proof that the social media platform has overstepped its bounds.
“Your position is that you can sit in Silicon Valley and that you can tell them what stories they can publish, and you can tell the American people what reporting they can hear, is that right?” Cruz asked.
Twitter’s censorship of the Post’s report was not just an individual mistake, though. In fact, it could very well be part of a coordinated effort across Big Tech, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, according to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Facebook even has an internal tool — a platform called “Tasks” — that allows its employees to collaborate with Google and Twitter in censoring users across each of the platforms. Hawley made the revelation during the hearing, citing a whistleblower who came forward with knowledge of the tool.
The whistleblower told Hawley that Twitter and Google “routinely suggest censorship topics,” and Facebook then “logs them for follow-up on ‘Tasks.’” When asked about this internal tool, Zuckerberg refused to say whether he was aware of it, and refused to agree to turn over the list of topics discussed by Twitter and Google.
.@Facebook whistleblower tells me FB uses its internal project management system, “Tasks,” to coordinate censorship with @Twitter and @Google. Pic of example Task page below pic.twitter.com/TR2qbFawpl
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) November 17, 2020
Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey agreed it is necessary to reform Section 230, a provision of the Communications Decency Act that says companies such as Facebook and Twitter cannot be held liable for statements posted by users because the companies themselves are not the ones creating or editing the content.
Dorsey proposed three potential solutions, which include an expansion of Section 230, new legislation from Congress, and/or a commitment by Twitter and other companies to engage in self-regulation.
Section 230 “has created so much goodness and innovation. If we didn’t have those protections when we started Twitter 14 years ago, we could not start,” Dorsey said. “I think we need a line around the problem we’re trying to solve.”
Zuckerberg and Dorsey also faced criticism from Democratic lawmakers who argued the social media platforms should take more direct action against President Trump and his supporters. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., blasted Dorsey for not deleting Trump’s tweets about election fraud, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said Facebook should be ashamed for allowing users to spread “conspiracy theories” about voter fraud.
“I think you can and must do better,” Leahy said.
Both Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that legislative reform will be necessary. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pointed out that Facebook and Twitter have become powerful monopolies that impose on the privacy of their users — a point with which several Republicans agreed.
“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.”