If there’s one thing we can count on in these uncertain times, it’s that no matter what happens, many Republican members of Congress will remain convinced that the major social platforms are secretly using their algorithms to down-rank conservative content. The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives held a hearing in April on this topic—one that spent most of its time trying to decide whether Facebook had somehow censored the right-wing YouTube duo known as Diamond & Silk—and it held a second hearing on Tuesday.
The executives testifying before the committee were Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management at Facebook; Juniper Downs, YouTube’s Global Head of Public Policy and Government Relations; and Nick Pickles, Senior Strategist for Public Policy at Twitter. Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte said the hearing’s purpose was to “look at concerns regarding a lack of transparency and potential bias in the filtering practices of social media companies [and] how they can be better stewards of free speech.” But as with the first hearing, most of the discussion on Tuesday focused on individual claims by members of Congress that one or more of the social platforms was censoring conservative views.
Republican Lamar Smith of Texas asked why Google censored search terms like “Jesus, Chick-Fil-A, and the Catholic religion,” although he didn’t provide any evidence for his claim. Iowa Republican Steve King asked Facebook why right-wing news site Gateway Pundit had seen its traffic drop. Neither question drew much response from the platforms. On a more serious note, Goodlatte and others also raised the question of whether the social platforms should still be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects them from liability for content posted by their users.
For the most part, the platforms stuck to their argument that they are neutral when it comes to content, and that they don’t deliberately prejudice their algorithms against conservative posts. But it was clear the repeated allegations of bias have hit their mark—the platforms appeared nervous. As The Washington Post reported last month, both Facebook and Twitter had back-room meetings with conservative celebrities and pundits to reassure them they aren’t biased, and at the beginning of Tuesday’s committee hearing, Bickert apologized for what she said was Facebook’s “mishandling” of the Diamond & Silk situation.
Some Democratic members said the platforms weren’t doing enough to remove offensive content, including sites peddling dangerous conspiracy theories such as Infowars. Ted Lieu of California, meanwhile, said the hearing was a waste of time, and that members of the committee should have been investigating the Russian infiltration of the NRA, instead of “how many Facebook likes Diamond & Silk should be entitled to have.” He said the only thing worse than a video from Alex Jones of the conspiracy site Infowars was the idea of the US government holding a hearing about content published on a private platform.
Here’s more on the social platforms and their struggles with Congress:
- Facebook as utility: In addition to criticizing Facebook for allegedly restricting the traffic of Gateway Pundit, Republican Steve King mused during the hearing about whether the social network and other massive tech platforms should be subject to the ultimate penalty. “What about converting the large behemoth organizations that we’re talking about here into public utilities?” he asked.
- No Infowars ban: One theme that Democratic members returned to multiple times during the hearing was why Facebook wouldn’t just ban misinformation providers such as Infowars. “How many strikes does a conspiracy theorist who attacks grieving parents and student survivors of a mass shooting get?” asked Ted Deutch of Florida. Bickert said fake news doesn’t breach the site’s terms of service, but tweaks to the News Feed algorithm are designed to down-rank such sites.
- Appeasement: Just days before the hearing, a group of senior media executives met with Facebook and some criticized the company for bending over backwards to appease conservatives, according to The Wall Street Journal. BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said the number of conservative news sites at the meeting suggested Facebook had bought into the idea “that mainstream outlets such as the New York Times are liberal and should be counterbalanced by right-leaning opinion outlets.”
- Three strikes: While Juniper Downs of YouTube was fairly straightforward on how many strikes a news outlet had before being blocked for posting offensive content (three), Facebook was not nearly as forthcoming. When asked how many times a site like Infowars could breach the rules before being punished, Bickert would only say that “the threshold varies depending on the severity of the infractions.”
- Lots of QAnon fans: New York Times writer Kevin Roose pointed out on Twitter that the live comments on YouTube’s stream of the Judiciary hearing were filled with conspiracy theorists who appeared to believe the QAnon conspiracy, a series of rumors spread on various online forums about an alleged coup against the “deep state.” Roose called this ironic juxtaposition “honestly kind of perfect.”
Other notable stories:
- Google was fined $5.1 billion by the EU in an antitrust ruling regarding Android’s role in the smartphone market. However, as the Times notes, “the ultimate effect of Wednesday’s ruling may be muted given that Europe has largely acted alone in its regulatory actions against Silicon Valley titans,” though, “there have been recent signs of shifting attitudes and tougher questions from Congress.”
- A man who worked for a Facebook contractor in Dublin moderating content on the social network said in a documentary aired on Britain’s Channel 4 network that the company lets far-right fringe groups get away with posting content that others are banned for, including hate speech. Facebook said these examples were mistakes and that it would retrain its moderators so they wouldn’t happen again.
- Karen Ho and Alexandria Neason write for CJR about the return of former long-time WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate, who has a new show on WBAI, a progressive station based in Brooklyn. Lopate was suspended from WNYC and eventually fired last year, after reports of inappropriate conduct.
- A federal judge lifted a controversial order that would have required the Los Angeles Times to remove information it had published about a former Glendale police detective who was accused of working with the Mexican mafia. The information was supposed to have been sealed by the court, but was posted to a public database by mistake.
- Isaac Lee, the head of content for Univision and architect of the company’s Fusion expansion, is stepping down from his position and plans to start his own TV production company, according to a report in Variety magazine. Univision recently changed CEOs and said it is looking to sell some of its holdings, including Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion, acquisitions spearheaded by Lee.
- Andy Kroll writes for California Sunday magazine about how Congressman Adam Schiff, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has gone from being a mild-mannered politician without much of a public profile to the unlikely hero of the Democratic party for his role in pushing for an investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government.