The CEOs of social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google face further escalation from Congress on Thursday, focused on their efforts to stop their platforms from spreading lies and inciting violence.
This has been a familiar theme for lawmakers over the past few years. But the pressure is even greater after the January 6 insurrection on the United States Capitol, the rise of disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine and the united Democratic control of Congress and the White House. The latter could make legislative action more likely, although that remains far from a sure thing.
As malicious conspiracy theories continue to spread, lawmakers are hammering social media companies for market dominance, harvesting user data and practices that some say actually encourage the spread of misinformation engaging but potentially harmful. Some Republicans have also alleged, without evidence, that censorship and political bias against conservatives is another reason to curb huge corporations.
There is growing support for Congress to impose new restrictions on legal protections for speeches posted on their platforms. Republicans and Democrats – including President Joe Biden when he was a candidate – have called for removing some of the protections under so-called Section 230 of a 25-year-old telecommunications law that protects internet companies any responsibility for what users post.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai – whose company owns YouTube – will testify in a virtual hearing before the House Energy Committee and trade. The title of the session leaves no doubt about the position of the majority Democrats: “Nation of disinformation: the role of social media in promoting extremism and disinformation”.
These executives have testified on the matter at several congressional hearings over the past year, sometimes under threat of a subpoena. This time they face more difficult dynamics and may be called to account for earlier promises. In a Senate hearing shortly after the November election, for example, Zuckerberg and Dorsey assured lawmakers they would act vigorously against misinformation.
Former President Donald Trump received special treatment on Facebook and Twitter until January, despite spreading false information, spreading false allegations of voter fraud and promulgating hate. Facebook banned Trump indefinitely a day after rioters encouraged by Trump stormed the Capitol. Twitter quickly followed suit, permanently disabling Trump’s favorite megaphone.
Banning a sitting president from social media was an unprecedented step. Of course, so does Trump’s extensive use of Twitter to lambast opponents, praise supporters, and spread false claims to more than 80 million followers. He was also only the second president to have a social media presence during his tenure.
Facebook has yet to decide whether it will permanently ban the former president. The company has referred the decision to its quasi-independent oversight board — a sort of Facebook enforcement Supreme Court — which is expected to rule on the matter next month.
Republicans have stepped up complaints of alleged censorship and anti-conservative bias on social media platforms. The researchers say there is no evidence that social media giants are biased against conservative news, posts or other content, or that they favor one side of political debate over another.
Democrats, on the other hand, largely focus on hate speech and incitement that can breed violence in the real world. An outside report released this week found that Facebook allowed groups — many linked to QAnon, “Boogaloo” and militia movements — to advocate violence during the 2020 election and in the weeks leading up to the elections. deadly riots in the Capitol.
The report by Avaaz, a nonprofit advocacy group that says it seeks to protect democracies from misinformation, identified several hundred Facebook pages and groups that it said disseminated material glorifying violence to a combined audience of 32 million users. Facebook acknowledged that its policy enforcement “isn’t perfect,” but said the report misrepresents its work against violent extremism and misinformation.
Tech CEOs plan a strong defense of the Section 230 Liability Shield, saying it helped make the internet the forum for free expression it is today. Zuckerberg, however, will again urge Congress to update this law to ensure it works as intended. He adds a specific suggestion: Congress could require Internet platforms to obtain legal protection only by proving that their systems for identifying illegal content are up to scratch.
“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place to identify illegal content and remove it,” Zuckerberg said in written testimony prepared for the hearing. Thursday.
It is unclear whether lawmakers will accept this argument. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, blamed Zuckerberg’s plan for consolidating giant corporations at the expense of smaller rivals. “Anyone working to solve real problems online should be deeply suspicious of Mark Zuckerberg’s proposals for new regulations,” Wyden said in a statement.
Pichai and Dorsey urged caution about any changes to Section 230. Regulation is important to protect the open web while limiting its harmful use, Pichai said in his written testimony. But he warned that many reform proposals “would not serve that purpose well”, and could inadvertently undermine free speech and limit the platforms’ ability to protect users.
Dorsey didn’t directly address the issue in his written statement, but responded to recent questions about how Twitter should handle world leaders who violate its policies. “We are currently reviewing our approach to world leaders and seeking public feedback,” he said in the statement.