The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Lindsey Graham (R-SC), conducted a hearing yesterday challenging the growing censorship on the Twitter and Facebook platforms. The committee called Big Tech CEO’s Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg to testify under oath.
Graham opened the hearing with statements calling for changes in Section 230, a law that currently protects internet social media platforms from liability on user content and their removal or restriction of that content. A recent Executive Order from the President announced in May, addresses issues of free speech and censorship related to online platforms. In his comments, Graham referred to the removal of a recent article tweeted by the New York Post about the Hunter Biden laptop. The New York Post’s Twitter account was also de-platformed. Graham said that Twitter "made itself the editor" for the New York Post when it removed the article. Dorsey responded that Twitter was abiding by its “terms of service,” saying that the terms prevent users from sharing information that “they believe to be hacked.” The New York Post account was de-platformed for two weeks.
Molly Hemingway, a writer for The Federalist, commented on Dorsey’s claim, saying that “there is no evidence that the Hunter Biden laptop materials were hacked and it was a legitimate journalistic inquiry.” Hemingway also highlighted the seemingly biased differences between how information is treated on these platforms. She cited the example of the recent New York Times article that produced potentially hacked materials on Donald Trump’s tax returns allowed to remain on the platform. She said the New York Times gave no explanation of how those materials were obtained and that, at a minimum, they were “ill-gotten…and yet Twitter made no attempt to restrict the sharing of that information.”
Senator Ted Cruz spoke about his concerns about online censorship being among the “greatest threats to free speech and free and fair elections in America.” Cruz acknowledged that Facebook “is at least trying” to address issues of censorship. He also referred to Google and its “willingness to manipulate search outcomes to influence and change election results.”
Cruz focused his attention on Twitter's actions. He said that “Twitter’s conduct has, by far, been the most egregious.” He asked Dorsey whether “Twitter has the ability to influence elections because of its ability to block, censor and de-platform users on its platform." Dorsey denied the power to influence because, he said, it is but “one part of a spectrum of communication choices that people have.” Cruz pushed back, saying people do not have a choice if they “do not have information.” Dorsey explained that Twitter places its “focus on making sure that more voices on the platform are possible. We see a lot of abuse and harassment which ends up silencing people and having them leave the platform.” Cruz told Dorsey his “opening answers are absurd on their face.”
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Mark Zuckerberg whether President Trump will still be “deemed newsworthy and will he still be able to use [Facebook] to spread his misinformation.” In response, Zuckerberg mentioned that Facebook has a “small number of policies where we have exceptions for politicians under the principle that people should be able to hear what their elected officials are saying—and candidates for office.” He denied that they censor for newsworthiness or political exceptions, so “if the President or anyone else is spreading hate speech or inciting violence or posting content that de-legitimizes the election or valid forms of voting, those will receive the same treatment as anyone else saying those things.”
Shortly after the election, attorney and Canadian Twitter user @thevivafrei quote-tweeted one of President’s Trump's tweets. He highlighted what he described as the “future of big tech censorship” when Trump tweeted about the denial of access for ballot counters in Pennsylvania. Ballot counters for the GOP were reportedly denied meaningful access in several states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Josh Hawley (R-MO) posted several tweets from the hearing, indicating that there is whistleblower evidence that Facebook “coordinates censorship with Twitter and Google.” Hawley observed that such coordination among tech giants could quickly ensure that users are banned on multiple platforms in short order.
Zuckerberg refused to give Hawley the “lists of hashtags, mentions, individuals and websites” from its “internal project management system called ‘Tasks’ that helps to coordinate censorship" among online platforms.
The hearing underscored the partisan divisions seen in recent months over the way information is handled on online platforms. The Republicans criticize social media and internet giants for their heavy-handed treatment of information. The Democrats demand they do more to create a digital environment free of what they deem to be misinformation or harmful content.