WASHINGTON – Legislators told Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday about the connection between online disinformation and the January 6 Riots in the CapitolAs a result, Twitter’s executive director publicly admitted for the first time that his product had played a role in the events that left five people dead.
When a Democratic legislature asked executives to answer “yes” or “no” on whether the platforms had any responsibility for the misinformation that contributed to the uprising, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey said “yes”. Neither Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg nor Google’s Sundar Pichai would answer the question directly.
The roughly five-hour hearing before a House committee was the first time lawmakers asked executives directly about the role of social media in January uprising. Tech bosses were also riddled with questions about how their companies helped spread falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines, enable racism, and harm children’s mental health.
It was also the first time since President Biden’s inauguration that executives testified. Tough questions from lawmakers signaled that the review of Silicon Valley business practices with the Democrats in the White House and the leadership of both chambers of Congress would not let up and even intensify.
The managing directors have become regulars at Capitol Hill in recent years. Mr. Zuckerberg has testified seven times since 2018. Mr. Dorsey has appeared five times and Mr. Pichai has testified four times since then. However, these hearings on disinformation, antitrust and data protection have not resulted in regulations. While there is a bipartisan animus towards corporations, there is still little consensus on how to specifically hold internet giants accountable. Dozens of privacy, public speaking, and antitrust laws went nowhere in recent years.
“It will be very difficult to translate these concerns into law,” said Alexandra Givens, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a technical think tank.
The hearing focused on questions about whether the companies had a financial incentive to motivate users – and click on ads – by feeding them divisive, extreme and hateful content. Legislators from both parties said Congress should reconsider a law protecting the platforms from complaints about content posted by their users.
“They’re not passive bystanders,” said Frank Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the House’s Energy and Trade Committee, Representative Frank Pallone. “You make money.”
Lawmakers, who compared the business practices of social media companies to tobacco and alcohol companies, were at times frustrated with the evasions of executives.
Representative Mike Doyle, Democrat of Pennsylvania, asked technology managers to answer yes or no: Did their platforms help spread pre-insurgency misinformation?
Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Pichai avoided the question. Mr. Dorsey was more direct.
“Yes,” he said. “But you also have to consider the broader ecosystem. It’s not just about the technology platforms we use. “
Mr. Doyle hugged the other executives.
“How can you not at least admit that Facebook played a leading role in recruiting, planning, and conducting the attack on the Capitol?” he asked Herr Zuckerberg.
“I think the responsibility here rests with the people who took action to break the law and lead the uprising,” Zuckerberg said. He added that the people who spread the misinformation also bore responsibility.
“But your platforms charged that,” said Mr. Doyle.
Later, when he was still on the video conference, Mr. Dorsey was there tweeted a single question mark with a poll that had two options: yes or no. When asked about his tweet by a lawmaker, he said “yes” wins.
The January Capitol riot made the issue of disinformation deeply personal to lawmakers. The uprising was fueled by false claims made by President Donald J. Trump and others that the elections had been stolen, which were circulated widely on social media.
Some of the participants had ties to QAnon and other online conspiracy theories. And prosecutors have said that groups involved in the riot, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, coordinated some of their actions on social media.
Legislators also criticized the platforms for enabling the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines against Covid-19. Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who represents part of Silicon Valley, told Mr. Dorsey that Twitter should “clean up all Covid misinformation and not flag or reduce its spread, but remove it”.
Republicans criticized the companies for increasing toxic levels, which were particularly harmful to children. Washington Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said social media was her “greatest fear” as parents. “I’ve been monitoring where your algorithms are leading them. It’s scary. I know I am not alone, ”said Ms. Rodgers.
Republican members also focused on decisions made by the social media platforms ban Mr. Trump and his staff after the riots of January 6th. The bans exacerbated conservatives’ belief that corporations are left-wing and prone to suppressing conservative voices.
“We are all aware of Big Tech’s increasing censorship of conservative voices and their commitment to the radical progressive agenda,” said Ohio representative Bob Latta, the senior Republican on the panel’s technology subcommittee.
Company executives defended their businesses, saying they had invested heavily in hiring content moderators and in technologies like artificial intelligence to identify and combat disinformation.
Mr. Zuckerberg spoke out against the notion that his company had a financial incentive to get its users’ attention by driving them to more extreme content. He said Facebook didn’t “develop algorithms just to try to optimize and optimize people and get them to spend every last minute on our service”.
Later in the hearing, he added that the disinformation about elections was being spread in messaging apps, where reinforcement and algorithms do not support the spread of false content. He also accused television and other traditional media of spreading election lies.
The companies showed cracks in their view of regulations. Facebook loudly endorsed the internet regulation in a big flash of advertising on TV and in newspapers. At the hearing, Mr. Zuckerberg proposed specific regulatory reforms to an important legal protection known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that has made Facebook and other Silicon Valley internet giants thrive.
The legal shield protects companies that host and moderate third-party content and states that companies like Google and Twitter are merely intermediaries for their user-generated content. Democrats have argued that companies with this protection are not motivated to remove disinformation. Republicans accuse companies of using the shield to moderate too much and remove content that does not match their political views.
“I believe Section 230 would benefit from thoughtful changes to make it work better for people,” Zuckerberg said in the statement.
He suggested making corporate liability protection conditional on their ability to combat the proliferation of certain types of illegal content. He said platforms should be asked to demonstrate that they have systems in place that can identify and remove illegal content. Reforms should be different for smaller social networks that would not have the same resources as Facebook to meet new demands.
Mr Pichai and Mr Dorsey said they support the transparency requirement for content moderation, but they disagreed with Mr Zuckerberg’s other ideas. Mr Dorsey said it would be very difficult to tell a large platform from a smaller one.
The legislature did not seem convinced.
“There’s a lot of complacency among you,” said Representative Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican. “There is that untouchability in your answers to many of the difficult questions you are asked.”
Kate Conger and Daisuke Wakabayashi Contribution to reporting.