Partisan Rancor as Big 3 of Social Media Face Off With Senate

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Frustration with the nation’s leading social media platforms is not controversial — both President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger in next week’s election want a complete repeal of the federal law that gives companies immunity for what their users publish.

Still a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee with the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google drove a wedge down the aisle, with Republicans complaining about a conspiracy against conservative viewpoints, and Democrats saying the issue is purposefully being drawn out to give Trump an edge in the race most polls show he’ll lose.

Passed in 1996, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is considered a foundational law of the modern internet.

In a court battle with Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, it is helping Twitter avoid liability for the parody accounts “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and a Republican strategist.

For Senators Roger Wicker, Cory Gardner and Ted Cruz, however, the focus was Twitter’s labeling and removing of specific Trump tweets.

“It’s strange to me that you can flag the tweets from the president but haven’t hidden the ayatollah’s tweets on Holocaust denial or calls to wipe Israel off the map and that you can’t recall hidden or deleted tweets from other world leaders,” said Gardner, a Colorado Republican. 

Gardner was referencing disinformation about the Holocaust posted by Iran’s supreme leader and a Trump tweet related to media coverage of Covid-19.

All of the CEOs called before the Senate this morning opted to appear virtually rather than in person because of the pandemic, with Twitter head Jack Dorsey telling lawmakers that he could provide a list of enforcement action the site had taken against a range of world leaders. 

Rebuffing allegations by Republicans that Dorsey is wielding his site to censor the president, the Twitter CEO testified that the site filters disinformation related to civic integrity, public health and election misinformation. Twitter does not have a general disinformation filter, or flag tweets that are generally misleading, he said.

In some instances, the site would remove content and in others it would provide it with accompanying, contextual information.

“There are three solutions we’d like to propose to address the concerns raised, all focused on services that decide to moderate or remove content,” Dorsey said. “They can be expansions to Section 230, new legislative frameworks or commitment to industry-wide best regulation practices.”

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai appears on a screen Wednesday as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that without Section 230, platforms would be prevented in certain aspects from limiting damaging or harmful content on their platforms. Some of that objectionable content that Facebook removes and is protected by Section 230, includes general bullying and harassment, he said.

“I would worry that some of the proposals that suggest getting rid of the phrase ‘otherwise objectionable’ from Section 230 would limit our ability to remove bullying and harassing content from our platforms, which I think would make them worse places for people,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg did call, however, for Congress to update Section 230 to ensure it’s working as intended — specifically, by ensuring content moderation systems are transparent.

“Another would be to separate good actors from bad actors by making sure that companies can’t hide behind Section 230 to avoid responsibility for intentionally facilitating illegal activity on their platforms,” Zuckerberg said. 

He added: “There are consequential choices to make here, and it’s important that we don’t prevent the next generation of ideas from being built.”

All three tech companies spend considerable dollars on moderating content. For example, Zuckerberg testified more than 35,000 are employed to work on content and safety review of Facebook’s content, pouring more than $3 billion a year into that moderation.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet, said he employs more than 10,000 human reviewers and an automated algorithm to review content, all to tune of over $1 billion.

Although Biden has publicly said he wants Section 230 repealed, members of his party complained about the timing of Wednesday’s hearing. Senator Amy Klobuchar said the Republican majority was politicizing what should not be a partisan topic  — noting there were only six days until Election Day.

Senator Richard Blumenthal called the hearing appalling, holding the hearing as a way to “bully and browbeat the platforms” towards Trump’s favor.

“Frankly, President Trump has broken all the norms and he has put on your platforms, potentially dangerous and lethal misinformation and disinformation,” Blumenthal said.

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