The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google were testifying before Congress on Thursday for the first time in the post-Trump era, and for possibly the last time before lawmakers begin debating sweeping changes to how they're allowed to do business.
Similar to hearings that occurred last fall, a goat-bearded Jack Dorsey and a defensive Mark Zuckerberg were trying to fend off criticism that their platforms allowed for the proliferation of misinformation. The difference now is that the topics of the misinformation lawmakers care about are about the COVID vaccines, and the QAnon conspiracy theories that drove some of the rioters to storm the Capitol on January 6. Google CEO Sundar Pichai is also along for the ride this time, and all three companies are facing potential regulation and crackdowns on multiple fronts, including antitrust investigations, a probe into Google's ad practices, and talk of changes to the law known as Section 230 that shields tech companies from liability for the content posted by their users.
"We fled as a mob desecrated the Capitol, the House floor and our democratic process,” said Representative Mike Doyle [D-PA] during opening remarks in the hearing, which was with the House House Energy and Commerce Committee. “That attack and the movement that motivated it started and was nourished on your platforms."
Doyle is also chair of the House subcommittee on Communications and Technology, and he said his staff was still easily able to find rampant vaccine misinformation on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
"You can take this content down. You can reduce the vision. You can fix this. But you choose not to," Doyle said. "You have the means. But time after time you are picking engagement and profit over the health and safety of users."
As CNN reports, Zuckerberg opened by squarely denying that Facebook bore any responsibility for inciting the riot at the Capitol — despite the fact that we know QAnon nonsense has proliferated into the mainstream in part because of Facebook Groups, when in past years it had only lurked in the shadows of 4chan.
Zuckerberg said his company "did our part to secure the integrity of the election. And then on January 6th, President Trump gave a speech ... calling on people to fight."
In Zuckerberg's pre-prepared remarks, he claims that Facebook has been diligent in removing vaccine misinformation since December.
"Groups, Pages, and accounts on Facebook and Instagram that repeatedly share these debunked claims may be removed altogether," he said. "In some instances, we are also requiring Group admins to temporarily approve all posts from other admins or members who have violated our Covid-19 policies. Claims about Covid-19 or vaccines that do not violate these policies may remain eligible for review by our independent third-party fact-checkers. If a claim is then identified as false, it will be labeled and will be demoted in News Feed."
Unlike Dorsey and Pichai, who just avoided the topic, Zuckerberg talked also about "thoughtful reform" of Section 230, suggesting that platforms like Facebook should face "conditional" liability for users' content, depending on how well the company is enforcing laws and its own content rules.
"I believe that Section 230 would benefit from thoughtful changes to make it work better for people, but identifying a way forward is challenging given the chorus of people arguing — sometimes for contradictory reasons — that the law is doing more harm than good," Zuckerberg said.
Dorsey was a bit more general in his prepared comments, saying that Twitter would make efforts to ensure users had more "algorithmic choice" in controlling what they see on the platform in the future — and he brought up that Project Bluesky thing that was announced over a year ago, in which the company is funding the independent development of a decentralized social media platform.
"As we look to the future, I agree with this Committee that technology companies have work to do to earn trust from those who use our services," Dorsey said. "For Twitter, that means tackling transparency, procedural fairness, algorithmic choice, and privacy."
Pichai addressed the spread of election misinformation prior to and after January 6, saying, "our teams worked to raise up authoritative news sources across our products," in response to the rise of Trumpian lies. "Teams at YouTube quickly took down any live streams or videos that violated our incitement to violence policies, and on January 7th, we began issuing strikes to those in violation of our presidential election integrity policy," Pichai said.
As the New York Times notes, Zuckerberg and Pichai both dodged a "yes or no" question from Rep. Doyle about whether their platforms played any role in the Capitol riot. But Dorsey said, "Yes. But you also have to take into consideration the broader ecosystem. It’s not just about the technological systems that we use."
As with the previous hearings, this is largely just political theater preceding the actual business of draft regulations — and it remains to be seen what those will look like once the lobbyists and the aides are done with them.