Anyone who watched the October 28 Senate Commerce Committee hearing, and is not immortal, might have regretted the time they will never get back. It was mostly a pointless escapade during which the CEOs of tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter appeared to be entirely unaware that their online platforms were engaging in outrageous acts of political censorship. Then again, perhaps they were fully aware and lying through their teeth.
This tedious event was not totally without merit, though: it revealed that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Google’s Sundar Pichai are in no way able to defend their companies against accusations of politically-motivated censorship.
The most relevant and – to use a favorite media word – explosive takeaway from the hearing must surely have been Dorsey’s admission that he has seen nothing that makes him believe the Hunter Biden laptop story, first reported by the New York Post and censored by Twitter, was false, fabricated, or inaccurate.
“Did either one of you have any evidence that the New York Post story is part of Russian disinformation,” Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) asked Zuckerberg and Dorsey, “or that those emails aren’t authentic?”
“We – we don’t,” Dorsey replied before stammering his way through an excuse that the material published from the laptop “looked like hacked materials.”
Clueless or Careless?
It was painfully clear, throughout the hearing, that these three CEOs – who together control so much of what the American people hear, see, and read – either have no clue about how their own companies operate in the real world or simply do not care.
It almost seems as though Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Pichai are living in a parallel universe, where political bias and censorship simply do not exist – or that they didn’t understand what those words, censorship and bias, actually mean. Ad nauseam, they assured senators, with poker faces, that their respective companies strive to be as transparent and as fair as possible.
GOP committee members repeatedly challenged the tech bosses to explain why they control the dissemination of information, based upon arbitrary decisions about what is and is not “fake news” or false information. Again and again, the CEOs acted like children who had been caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing; they simply denied there were any problems, while at the same time pledging to fix the very issues they claimed did not exist. We haven’t done anything wrong, they were saying, but we promise not to do it again.
Bizarrely, Dorsey also said he did not believe Twitter had the ability to influence elections – which begs the question: why censor any political speech or reportage at all? If nothing posted and shared on his platform is going to affect voters’ decisions, it surely does not matter what Twitter users choose to post.
Democrats Unfairly Censored Online – Huh?
There was, however, an even more ridiculous facet to the hearing. Democratic senators berated the three witnesses for working to help Republicans while censoring Democrats. Anyone who uses one or more of these online platforms and is willing to be completely honest knows that there are almost no instances of left-wing media companies, politicians, or activists being censored. At the same time, conservatives – whether famous or not – and Republican politicians are limited continuously in their interactions, suspended or even banned entirely by these companies.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who presumably has no personal experience with social media, told the CEOs that they had “institutionally bent over backwards and overcompensated” for Republicans, giving “special dispensation to right-wing voices, and even throttled progressive journalists.” It is almost a certainty that neither Schatz nor anyone else can name a single progressive journalist who has been “throttled” by Facebook, Google, or Twitter.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) even suggested that these companies had been bullied by Republicans into propping up President Trump’s re-election campaign, though he provided no substantive support for this claim.
The hearing concluded without any meaningful progress on how to ensure that these tech giants do not continue to manipulate what their users consume. There appears to be before us a false choice: allow things to continue as they are or kill online free speech by regulating these platforms into near-extinction. The solution is not that difficult, though.
Twitter, Facebook, Google, and all other electronic forums do not need heavy government regulation – they need to be stripped of the ability to manipulate public information with impunity. They are actively controlling the content, and that should be enough to treat them as publishers. Private entities they may be, but they have become universally-accessible public squares. The internet developed in ways few could have imagined just two decades ago. The rules need to be rewritten. It is the government’s constitutional duty to protect free speech – which, in this electronic era, means ensuring that online platforms with tens of millions of users are not stifling freedom of thought, speech, or expression.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.