Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey agreed Tuesday to support changes to a key federal internet law even as they pushed back at allegations that their companies are biased against conservative views.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the pair of executives answered a range of questions that strayed from the original topic: how the companies handled the 2020 US election. The four-and-a-half-hour hearing touched on tech addiction, encryption and antitrust, in addition to content moderation.
The testimony marked the second congressional appearance for both men in less than a month. Though the exchanges were more cordial than last month’s, it was clear from the outset that lawmakers are intent on reining in the two popular social networks. One frequently raised possibility: revising Section 230, a key federal law that shields internet companies from liability for user-generated content.
The hearing put a spotlight on differences in how Democrats and Republicans view content moderation. Democrats are concerned that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms aren’t doing enough to combat the spread of disinformation, misinformation and outright lies. Republicans are concerned the companies harbor an anti-conservative bias that affects moderation decisions. The hearing highlighted competing interests that the social networks need to balance, such as free expression, privacy and safety.
Republicans called the hearing after Facebook and Twitter slowed the spread of a New York Post article that suggested unproven improprieties involving the son of now President-elect Joe Biden. The actions, conservatives say, indicate that Facebook and Twitter are publishers, and shouldn’t be protected by Section 230. (The companies also add labels to content with disputed information.)
“You’re the ultimate editor,” Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, said about the slowdown of the article. “If that’s not making an editorial decision, I don’t know what would be.”
Democrats seized on efforts by Republican President Donald Trump, who lost his reelection bid to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, to use social media to cast doubts on the election results. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said the social networks had taken “baby steps” to address the problem, which he called a “moral and civic responsibility.”
In one of the testier exchanges, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, told Dorsey he would test the company’s policies by tweeting information about voter fraud to see if it got labeled as disputed. At about 10:30 a.m. PT, he did just that in a series of three tweets. None of the tweets had been labeled when this story was published.
Here are some other highlights from Tuesday’s hearing:
- Dorsey and Zuckerberg signaled they were open to regulation but cautioned against changes that could harm smaller tech companies and innovation. Dorsey said Congress should consider “additions to Section 230, industrywide self-regulation best practices, or a new legislative framework.” The comments marked the first time Dorsey has supported changes to that law. Zuckerberg said Congress should update Section 230 “to make sure it’s working as intended.”
- Zuckerberg and Dorsey pushed back on the idea they’re publishers. Twitter distributes information, Dorsey said. Facebook is different from news publishers because it doesn’t create content, Zuckerberg said. “I do think that we have responsibilities, and it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform,” the Facebook boss said.
- Democrats pressed Zuckerberg and Dorsey about whether labeling posts that contain misinformation was effective. Both executives said they were studying the impact of their election efforts. In one tweet, Trump falsely claimed he won the election. Twitter added a label stating that officials might not have called the race. “Do you believe that label goes far enough to prevent the tweet’s harms when the tweet is still visible and not accurate?,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, asked Dorsey. He said he thought so because users got directed to more information.
- Blumenthal asked Zuckerberg if he’d commit to taking down the account of former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who called for the beheading of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and FBI Director Christopher Wray. “No, that’s not what our policies would suggest that we should do in this case,” Zuckerberg said.
- Republicans, such as Cruz and Josh Hawley of Missouri, continued to push accusations that social networks intentionally censor their speech. Cruz said the companies have massive power and told Dorsey that Twitter was “engaged in publishing decisions.”
- Lawmakers from both parties raised concerns about tech addiction and its potential impact on children. Dorsey acknowledged that social media can be addictive, while Zuckerberg said the research was “inconclusive” and most people don’t see the services as addictive.
- Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, asked how Twitter and Facebook would handle Trump’s account after he ends his presidency. A Twitter public interest policy exempting world leaders from some of its rules won’t apply to Trump when he leaves office, Dorsey said. Zuckerberg said that most of Facebook’s rules, including barring hate speech and voter suppression, don’t have a newsworthiness exemption.