Editor’s Note: As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Whoever ends up being declared the official winner of the 2020 presidential election, one thing appears certain: Silicon Valley is going to get plenty of attention over the next four years.
On Nov. 17, Facebook and Twitter CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey appeared before Congress for the second time in a month – this time giving virtual testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about their election coverage, censorship, fake news, and the now-infamous Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Senate Quizzes Big Tech CEOs
Titled “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election,” the hearing was called to discuss the New York Post’s blocked Hunter Biden laptop story – but ended up touching on a wide variety of topics, from anti-trust issues to foreign government influence, and the addictive nature of social media. Nonetheless, the focus was undoubtedly on the debate between censorship versus misinformation.
The latest episode in a recurring pattern featured Republicans grilling the CEOs for committing too much censorship, while Democrats took the opposite stance, pushing for more controls and blaming the companies for being too laissez-faire over misinformation and “hate speech.”
Asked directly by Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both Zuckerberg and Dorsey stated that they support reform of Section 230 – though not with specifics. Despite this, each company refused to admit to acting as a “publisher” or making editorial decisions on content.
Dems Push for Greater Restrictions
Democrats consistently requested greater limits on “misinformation” and even outright bans of figures including President Trump and Steve Bannon. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) suggested neither platform had gone far enough in curbing the efforts of Trump and his supporters in “delegitimizing” the election results with misinformation. Facebook shut down the group Stop the Steal, which has questioned and protested the integrity of the election – but not fast enough, according to Feinstein, who suggested some armed members of the group could cause violence. She, as well as Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), doubted that warnings on tweets were enough to prevent the “harms” that could be caused by people such as Trump.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) followed suit, accusing social media of taking only “baby steps” to live up to their “responsibilities” of disallowing speech questioning the integrity of the election. “That’s not censorship,” Blumenthal said, “that’s moral and civic responsibility.” He stated:
“Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey, you have built terrifying tools of persuasion and manipulation with power far exceeding the robber barons of the last Gilded Age. You have profited hugely by strip mining data about our private lives and promoting hate speech and voter suppression; you have an immense civic and moral responsibility to ensure these instruments of influence do not irreparably harm our country. I recognize the steps – they’re really baby steps – that you’ve taken so far. The destructive, incendiary misinformation is still a scourge on both your platforms and on others.”
Riding the Q&A Merry-Go-Round
As if riding a seesaw, senators would flip from demanding less censorship to craving more of it – all along party lines.
Among the most aggressive questioners was Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who directly rebutted the Democrat talking points, saying, “Consistently the message from Senate Democrats is for Facebook and Twitter and Google to censor more, to abuse their power more, to silence voices that Senate Democrats disagree with more. That is very dangerous if we want to maintain a free and fair democracy, if we want to maintain free speech.”
Cruz attacked the companies’ entitlement to Section 230 protections, which are based on maintaining bias-free bulletin boards. Here is a sample of the revolving-door conversation between him and the Twitter CEO:
Cruz: Mr. Dorsey, does voter fraud exist?
Dorsey: I don’t know for certain.
Cruz: Are you an expert in voter fraud?
Dorsey: No, I’m not.
Cruz: Well, why then is Twitter right now putting purported warnings on virtually any statement about voter fraud?
Dorsey: We’re simply linking to a broader conversation so that people have more information.
Cruz: No, you’re not. You put up a page that says, quote, “voter fraud of any kind is exceedingly rare in the United States.” That’s not linking to a broader conversation, that’s taking a disputed policy position, and you’re a publisher when you’re doing that. You’re entitled to take a policy position, but you don’t get to pretend you’re not a publisher and get a special benefit under Section 230 as a result.
Dorsey: That link is pointing to a broader conversation with tweets from publishers and people all around the country.
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) also had interesting questions about Facebook’s extensive tracking of users’ data, as well as whether Facebook coordinates content moderation with Twitter and Google – but no conclusive response was forthcoming. “It’s always amazing to me, Mr. Chairman, how many people before this committee suddenly develop amnesia, maybe it is something about the air in this room,” Hawley drawled in response to this stonewalling.
Taking Human Eyes Out of the Equation
One may imagine that a smug keyboard jockey is behind each decision to block or stifle a message on social media – perhaps an army of miniature dictators indulging their secret desire to exert power over others by pressing the “ban” button. While a few references were made to the one-sided political makeup of staff in Silicon Valley, the reality is that these choices are increasingly automated. Both Dorsey and Zuckerberg admitted that much of the objectionable content is detected and flagged by artificial intelligence algorithms rather than by human staff members; both of these pathways, however, aim to remove such material before it is even seen by the public.
“On hate speech, we’re up to 94% of the content that we take down our AI systems and content reviewers find it before people have to report it to us. What we try to drive on more effectiveness is basically finding more and more of that harmful content earlier, before it is seen broadly across our system,” remarked Zuckerberg.
“A lot of these decisions are not being made by humans anymore, they’re being made by algorithms, and that’s certainly enforcement decisions, but also decisions around what you see or what you don’t see,” Dorsey added.
Despite the Senate committee’s polarization, there was one thing everyone seemed to agree on: Big Tech hasn’t heard the last of these questions – but will the solutions leave these “robber barons” with less power, or more?
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.