On Tuesday in a hearing entitled “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression and the 2020 Election,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee with both parties taking Twitter and Facebook to task. Republicans put pressure on the CEOs over purported censorship on their platforms and Democrats pressured over alleged misinformation spreading on their platforms.
The Republicans argued for the removal of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms’ immunity provided in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, arguing that they should not be considered publishers under said law. Republicans on the committee questioned the tech giants over alleged censorship of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden; Twitter blocked users from sharing the article; while Facebook did not entirely block the story, it limited its distribution on Facebook.
In his opening statement, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stated, “They’re having to make decisions that offend people on the left and the right. And what we’re trying to do is look at Section 230 and to see if it needs to be modified or changed because Section 230 basically allows social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to pass on information without legal liability. If a newspaper does something you don’t like, if you think they have slandered you in a certain way you can sue them.”
The Democrats focused on the spread of misinformation, particularly pointing to President Trump and his supporters. The Democrats emphasized the importance of curbing misinformation and misleading content ahead of the Georgia runoff elections.
Representing the Democrats, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) reiterated that “change must come to social media.” Sen. Blumenthal expressed concern over misinformation spread through social media. Blumenthal claimed that Facebook and Twitter “have built terrifying tools of persuasion and manipulation with power far exceeding the Robber Barons of the last Gilded Age,” and emphasized that misinformation is a problem on their platforms. Blumenthal also noted the need for Section 230 reform.
Both Dorsey and Zuckerberg defended their content moderation practices but admitted that they have made some mistakes. The CEOs also asserted that they were not publishers, but indicated that they would be open to some reforms of Section 230.
Dorsey addressed the controversy in his opening remarks, noting that the New York Post story was blocked following a 2018 policy against spreading hacked materials. Dorsey stated, “We made a quick interpretation using no other evidence that the materials in the article were obtained through hacking, and according to our policy, we blocked them from being spread…Upon further consideration, we admitted this action was wrong and corrected it within 24 hours.” Dorsey added that Twitter did not have a process to reverse its decision to unblock the Post’s account as the Post requested, but the issue demonstrated the need for such a process. Dorsey proposed three ways to move forward: expand Section 230, new legislation, and/or allow social media companies like Twitter to self-regulate.
This hearing comes after both Dorsey and Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in October regarding Section 230. The session concluded with Sen.Graham noting that there will be more hearings to find ways to modify Section 230 to resolve the issues discussed during today’s hearing and brought before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Additionally, Sen. Blumenthal noted that Google, Amazon, and others will also be testifying in the future along with Twitter and Facebook. Sen. Graham’s closing remarks expressed his hope to work collaboratively towards a resolution. Both Senators pointed towards the EARN IT Act as a step in the right direction towards that solution.