Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were once again taking part in the political theater of a congressional hearing on Tuesday, this time testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Ted Cruz got a chance to yell and Dianne Feinstein got to frown at them both.
As was the case during the last hearing on October 28, before the Senate Commerce Committee, Zuckerberg and Dorsey were taking it from all sides, and Dorsey continues to sport that goat beard.
Having seen a few of these hearings by this point, you can pretty much fill in the blanks yourself about what Democratic and Republican senators said and asked — Senator Feinstein told Zuckerberg and Dorsey that they didn't do enough to shut up Trump's lies; Senator Cruz excoriated them both for overstepping their rights and censoring Trump too much.
There were a few new items up for discussion, now that we've (mostly) gotten through this horrific election season.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont brought up Steve Bannon's comments about beheading Dr. Fauci and the fact that Facebook didn't see fit to ban Bannon over those. And he mentioned the spread of disinformation after the election, in particular from the president and his allies, about voter fraud.
"I think you can and must do better," Leahy said.
Senator Mazie Hirono brought up the fact-checking labels that Facebook and Twitter have slapped onto Trump's posts.
"I have serious questions about the effectiveness of these labels," said Hirono said, adding that the damage of the lie is still being done if someone disregards the label. (Dorsey mentioned that the policy around keeping up tweets from world leaders containing misinformation or threats, hidden behind an interstitial message about the content, "goes away" once a person is "no longer a world leader.")
And evil elf/Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham brought up the piece of Russian disinformation that the New York Post published, thanks to Rudy Giuliani, about a hard drive full of fake Hunter Biden emails, and the fact that both companies sought to limit the reach of this bit of "news."
"That, to me, seems like you’re the ultimate editor," Graham said.
Zuckerberg stressed that the company had employed third-party, credentialed fact-checkers with no political bias — and, repeatedly, elderly senators betrayed a complete lack of understanding of how content moderation happens.
And as the New York Times reports, there was further discussion about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been used for decades to shield internet companies from liability for the content that users publish themselves. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal promised "aggressive reform to 230," and warned, "Change is going to come."
In a Twitter thread Tuesday morning, Dorsey reiterated suggestions he made at the hearing three weeks ago. He suggested "a commitment to industry-wide self-regulation best practices," and some new legislative framework that applies to all platforms — but, again, if no one in the Senate understands how content moderation works, how is any of this legislation going to make sense?
Requiring 1) moderation process and practices to be published, 2) a straightforward process to appeal decisions, and 3) best efforts around algorithmic choice, are suggestions to address the concerns we all have going forward. And they all are achievable in short order.— jack (@jack) November 17, 2020
Senator Marsha Blackburn brought up the sensitive issue, at least for Facebook, that the platform had become a publisher and news source in and of itself. And she pressed Zuckerberg about a shutdown of a Vietnamese dissident's account at the behest of the Communist government there, and other instances in which the company has complied with "state-sponsored censorship" in order to continue doing businesses in foreign countries with authoritarian regimes.
Both Facebook and Twitter appear likely to face new regulations under the next Congress, given the rare bipartisan enthusiasm for the cause. But whether that will take the shape of some revision of Section 230, new legislation around content moderation, or something more along the lines of an antitrust effort remains to be seen.