The CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, appeared before the US Senate on Tuesday 17th November to face questions over their companies’ role in the US election.
An ideological and political divide saw Republican senators examine the role of censorship in social media, especially towards US President Donald Trump, while Democrats questioned the role of social media in the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
While both Republicans and Democrats came at the issue from different sides, at stake is the future of a key legal protection for Twitter and Facebook.
Social media companies are protected by a provision in Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which states that: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Originally designed in early 90s to protect internet service providers, social media companies have used the provision to claim they are neutral platforms, instead of publishers, and are therefore not responsible for the content they host.
In the opening remarks at the hearing, Judiciary Committee chairman and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said: “What I want to try to find out is if you’re not a newspaper at Twitter or Facebook, then why do you have editorial control over the New York Post?”
This formed the basis of the Republican argument – by censoring or removing posts by President Trump and other right-wing groups, the social media giants were taking an editorial stance, like a newspaper.
With protections from Section 230, social media companies are protected in ways news publishers were not, giving them a major competitive advantage.
Senator Graham added: “When you have companies that have the power of governments, have more power than traditional media outlets, something has to give.”
For their part, while the CEOs defended their content management policies, they admitted that additional work needed to be done.
Twitter blocked a link to a New York Post investigation into US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, over links to a Ukrainian energy company. Dorsey claimed that Twitter had been wrong to remove the post and failure to restore the newspaper’s tweets required a policy change.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg pointed to moves by Facebook to remove content from militias and conspiracy networks to prevent violence or civil unrest as an example of how his company is using its position responsibly.
One of the major developments the hearing investigated was the social media companies’ reaction to recent posts by ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon. In a video posted on both Twitter and Facebook, he called for the beheadings of Covid-19 expert Dr Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray, both figures that President Trump has had public disagreements with.
The call to violence saw Twitter remove Bannon while Facebook removed the video and issued him with a temporary suspension, claiming he had not earned enough infractions for a permanent ban.
Zuckerberg claimed that a permanent removal was not inline with Facebook’s policies.
“How many times is Steve Bannon allowed to call for the murder of public officials before Facebook suspends his account,” asked Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal.
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Zuckerberg and Dorsey appeared before the US Senate previously in late October, alongside Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The hearing covered similar issues to the latest one – Democrats broached concerns about the role of misinformation ahead of the US election, with Republicans interested in claims social media companies were taking ideological sides to stifle right-wing views.
With many of the same themes and arguments appearing at both the pre-election and post-election hearings, the prospect of a reform of Section 230 may be approaching.
In an interview with the New York Times in January 2020, President-elect Joe Biden said that he felt that Section 230 protections for social media companies should be revoked.