Social Media Execs Fight Censorship Claims in Senate

In this March 15, 2013, file photo, a Facebook employee walks past a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Executives from Facebook and Twitter defended their platforms Wednesday against claims they censor conservative voices, pointing to an internal study conducted this year showing posts by Republican and Democratic lawmakers were viewed at the same rate.

Insisting the social media site doesn’t take sides, Carlos Monje Jr., the director of public policy for Twitter in the United States and Canada, insisted to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that “Twitter does not use political viewpoints, perspectives or party affiliation whether it is related to automatically ranked content or who enforces platform rules.”

In fact, Monje said, Twitter – President Donald Trump’s favorite platform – is “actually very popular for conservative voices.”

Over five weeks between February and March, Twitter reviewed tweets by all members of the House and Senate and after controlling for factors like follower counts and response rates, there was “no statistical difference between the number of times a tweet is viewed by Democrats or Republicans.”

Their post performance was the same and the only reason why content was “downrated,” Monje said, was because a significant number of that account’s followers had a history of breaking terms of service.

Once the issue was identified, it was resolved typically with 24 hours, he added.

Neil Potts, Facebook’s public policy director who just a day earlier testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the rise of white nationalism and big tech’s role in managing the spread of hate speech online, also assured senators on Wednesday that Facebook did not penalize users who espouse conservative views.

“We don’t suppress conservative speech,” Potts said.

Insinuations that Facebook uses an algorithm that captures words conservatives frequently use and then flags that user’s account or removes posts are also completely unfounded, Potts testified under oath.

Community standards guiding which content is removed from Facebook are broader than the guidance implemented at Twitter, he acknowledged, saying Facebook uses over 22 standards to moderate content.

But Facebook sees over a billion uploads a day from all over the world and this makes perfect moderation impossible, Potts said.

Twitter, according to Monje, moderates 5 billion tweets every day.

Republicans on the committee were not alone in their frustration with the social media giants.

Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii expressed frustration that families of the victims killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting “barely had time to bury their children” before conspiracy theories began to circulate online.

Robbie Parker, whose child was killed at Sandy Hook just over six years ago, was also called to testify Wednesday.

After the shooting, Parker went directly to Twitter and Facebook for help in removing posts accusing him of being a crisis actor and participating in a hoax.

“He had to deal with people telling him his daughter didn’t die and the shooting was staged as a way to confiscate people’s guns. Until this day, if you Google Robbie, you are linked to videos claiming Sandy Hook was a hoax,” Hirono said.

A representative from Google was invited by Democrats on the committee to testify during Wednesday’s hearing but the invitation was rescinded by Chairman Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas.

Google intended to send Max Pappas, now the company’s manager of external policy and partnerships, but Cruz confirmed Wednesday that Pappas’ testimony was rejected because he was “not senior enough.”

Before joining Google, Pappas served as an aide to Cruz from 2013 to 2017.

In a statement Wednesday, Google said Pappas was their “most qualified subject matter expert.” Though the Republican majority would not allow Pappas to testify in person, Senator Hirono’s request for Pappas’ prepared testimony to be entered into the formal record was approved.

Cruz also had questions for Potts and Monje on shadow bans, a practice that Republican Representative Devin Nunes of California claimed in a recent $250 million defamation lawsuit against Twitter was a regular feature of the social media platform’s operations.

Shadow banning is a process in which users are allowed to post online freely but their messages, after manipulation by the platform, are seen by no one else. Monje and Potts both denied the practice occurs.

But if a user’s posts can be downgraded, Cruz asked, what is the difference between that and shadow banning?

“If we have signals that indicate a person is being spammy, using multiple accounts to post the same thing, or they’re using automated activity or it’s abusive, or even if we’re unsure if they’re breaking the rules, we make it harder for the content to be found in search results and in conversations,” Monje said.

Cruz also took issue with Twitter’s assertion that it does not censor conservative voices by using an algorithm targeting words conservatives may use frequently online. 

Displaying a poster featuring a snippet of a conversation allegedly captured by an undercover member of the conservative activist group Project Veritas with a former engineer for Twitter, Cruz read the engineer’s statement back to Monje: “You look for Trump or America, or any of the 5,000 keywords to describe a ‘redneck.’”

Monje replied that the engineer was not representing Twitter but made the comment socially and was showboating, believing the undercover activist was interested in him romantically.

“We never use political ideation. That was big talk by someone who thought he was on a date,” Monje said before clarifying another Twitter-related quote Cruz brought up earlier in the hearing.

The statement was from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who in an interview with podcaster Sam Harris in February said, “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance anymore. I don’t believe that we should optimize for neutrality.” 

Cruz leaned on the statement as proof of Twitter’s intent to harm conservatives but Monje said the quote was incomplete and the entire back end of Dorsey’s statement was missing.

Reading from the interview with Harris, Monje quoted Dorsey’s very next sentence: “Neutrality is not what we’re aiming for but I do believe we should optimize for impartiality. Neutrality is a lot more passive and hands off.”

While some may push for restrictions or forced equivalencies – standards mandating that platforms allow an equal number of posts on a contentious issue such as abortion – Senator Hirono warned against such a practice.

“There are a lot of vile things on both of your platforms that I wish could be taken down… but short some kind of equivalency of the kind of content allowed online, I don’t know how we’re supposed to be assured that there’s no bias,” Hirono said. “But if we were to limit comments to an equal number – you would push out a lot of posts that wouldn’t meet that numerical equivalent.”

Both Potts and Monje agreed that no forced equivalencies could be made if free speech and expression were to remain intact.

“The algorithm allows for a free flow and if there are more pro-life posts, for example, so be it. If there are more pro-choice posts, so be it. We just want a free flow of ideas,” Potts said.

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