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The leaders of tech’s biggest companies are becoming well acquainted with congressional hearings — hearings that are consistently devolving into theatrics as lawmakers politicize regulation of the industry.
Republicans typically use their time during the hearings to demand to know why tech platforms “censor” posts from President Donald Trump, intentionally silence voices on the right, and stifle free speech. These talking points have proven to be effective messaging for senators seeking election, as well as for expanding the Republican Party’s reach online. Some senators have also questioned the political leanings of their employees and how that could influence their moderation decisions.
Democratic lawmakers have, in turn, used their time to scold their Republican colleagues for spouting such “baseless” claims and for bullying the left, as Sen. Mazie Hirono did during Tuesday’s hearing. If anything, Hirono and others have said tech firms do not do enough to crack down on the “lies” that Trump spreads online. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin said there are “more important” things to address than the alleged censorship. And Sen. Brian Schatz used his entire allotted time during an October hearing to accuse Republicans of politicizing Section 230 protections.
Twitter and Facebook have been fielding accusations over anti-conservative bias for years now, after Republicans’ criticism of the tech companies increased soon after Trump’s election in 2016. Facebook has even reportedly crushed traffic to left-leaning news sites, an attempt to appease Republicans and dispel the perception that the platform is biased against the right.
And at Tuesday’s virtual hearing, Republicans wasted no time launching accusations of liberal bias at Zuckerberg and Dorsey, once again using a very public forum to turn attention to the alleged heavy-handed censorship of conservative voices.
Republicans tell tech companies to ‘get out of the censorship business’
Tech’s harshest critics in Washington include Sens. John Kennedy, who told Dorsey and Zuckerberg to “get out of the censorship business,” Marsha Blackburn, and Joshua Hawley. But perhaps the most aggressive Republican lawmaker has been Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz lambasted Dorsey over his firm’s decision to block a dubious New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter, which included personal contact information, thereby violating Twitter’s hacked materials policy. He demanded to know why Twitter didn’t also ban a New York Times story in late September about Trump’s taxes, a report that was published with materials leaked to reporters.
“You’ve used this in a selective manner,” Cruz said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Twitter admitted it mishandled the now-infamous New York Post story by blocking the article without an explanation, in what was perceived as arbitrary enforcement of its moderation policies. One lawmaker even said on Tuesday that Twitter and Facebook’s reaction to the article amplified it even more than had they not acted.
The biggest consequence of Twitter and Facebook’s move was giving Republicans another talking point to deploy when accusing internet platforms of censoring right-leaning content. But as Media Matters for America president Angelo Carusone wrote for NBC News in October, many of the cherry-picked items that conservatives offer of censorship are usually “examples of individuals breaking the rules or not knowing how social media works.”
Conservative content dominates the online world, statistics show, and is more likely to include misinformation
Conservative content is flagged more for misinformation than its liberal counterparts because America’s right-wing has been exploiting these tech platforms for years now — long before even the 2016 election — Emma Ruby-Sachs, executive director of the consumer watchdog group SumOfUs, told Business Insider.
“I think that’s because they figured out early that fake, salacious content spreads fast,” she said. “They’re just ahead of the game right now.”
However, she said it’s simply fake news spreaders that are the culprits — not Republicans at-large.
“It’s not a tenet of the Republican party to create salacious conspiracy theories,” Ruby-Sachs said. “It’s just that those that are exploiting the spread of fake news are Republicans.”
Ruby-Sachs said conservatives have successfully carved out multiple networks online as tech companies lag in enforcing stricter policies. Far-right extremists like the now-banned QAnon conspiracy theory, the Proud Boys, a militia group, and others, have also found a home on these internet platforms because of a lack of enforcement.
Right-leaning content is not only bountiful online — it dominates, an important detail that conservative lawmakers may be missing in their argument.
Facebook’s top-performing posts regularly come from conservative outlets and figures — like Fox News and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro — according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that measures user engagement. The data appears to refute Republicans’ claims that internet platforms silence voices on the right, especially because people online are more likely to engage with hyper-partisan content.
An anonymous Facebook executive told Politico in September that conservative content thrives online since “right-wing populism is always more engaging” because of its themes of “nation, protection, the other, anger, fear.” Another Politico analysis from October found that right-wing online figures dominated the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement and voter fraud leading up to the election. Viral right-wing content was shared 10 times more often than the most popular liberal posts, the analysis found.
A Pew Research study from August found that almost 70% of Republicans believe major tech giants favor the views of liberals over those of conservatives. And a June study from researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that people who don’t trust media outlets post misinformation more often. Trump has repeatedly peddled anti-media rhetoric throughout his presidency.
Facebook has made a series of policy changes and product decisions in recent years that favor conservatives, but that have opened the floodgates for misinformation and incendiary content, as Business Insider’s Rob Price reported.
And after critics pressured them to do more, Facebook and Twitter both implemented a number of precautions to curb the spread of misinformation around the 2020 election. Facebook added labels to posts that touch on the “legitimacy of voting methods.” Twitter said it would flag posts that contain misleading information about the US election process as well as tweets that prematurely declared victory for a presidential candidate, in line with its policy on civic integrity.
Both platforms have had to grapple with the fact that one of the most visible sources of election misinformation has been President Trump, whose posts — including some declaring a premature victory — have been labeled multiple times.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Cruz slammed Dorsey for these labels and said that Twitter has “taken a political position” in the 2020 presidential election. But both Dorsey and Zuckerberg have been largely tight-lipped in defending themselves against Republicans’ accusations, a silence that has allowed the claims of anti-conservative bias to flourish.
Conservatives will likely continue to think the internet is out to get them. And as the political climate grows more polarized, more platforms will emerge that run on lighter enforcement of online rules. Conservatives are already flocking to Twitter alternatives like Parler, which touts itself as a free-speech platform unbound by fact-checkers and whose members include Cruz.
“I’m proud to join @parler_app — a platform gets what free speech is all about — and I’m excited to be a part of it,” Cruz tweeted on June 25. “Let’s speak. Let’s speak freely. And let’s end the Silicon Valley censorship.”