Democratic U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii called the proceedings a sham.
“This is bullying, and it is for electoral purposes,” he said. “Do not let the United States Senate bully you into carrying water for those who want to spread misinformation.”
He was speaking to the chief executive officers of Facebook, Google and Twitter at a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Democrats like Schatz were unhappy with the timing of the hearing, coming as it did less than a week before the presidential election. That didn’t stop Republicans, though, from airing their complaints.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas seemed particularly upset with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter.
“Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?” Cruz demanded.
His comment referred to a New York Post story about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Twitter had blocked users from sharing links to the story while Facebook adjusted its algorithms to slow the story’s distribution.
The hearing was ostensibly about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
In his book, “Twenty Six Words that Created the Internet,” author Jeff Kosseff wrote that it was this one brief section of the law that made internet giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter possible. Drafted in the early days of the internet almost 25 years ago, the measure provided the greatest protection afforded such companies by any country in the world.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service,” the section says, “shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
What that means is that these companies can’t be held responsible for whatever horrible lie one of their users might post on their platforms.
Perhaps ironically, one of the law’s biggest critics has been President Donald J. Trump. He’s been calling for the section’s repeal ever since Twitter placed a label on one of his tweets suggesting it might be inaccurate.
Democrats, on the other hand, say the companies aren’t doing enough to stop guys like the president from spreading lies and conspiracy theories.
In his testimony, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said he wasn’t opposed to making some changes in the rules governing his industry.
“We support the ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals,” he said, “and I look forward to meaningful dialogue about how we might update the law to deal with the problems we face today.”
Coming up with the right set of regulations to govern these companies won’t be easy, but it seems to me our greatest challenge is addressing the way social media companies deepen the divisions in our country.
A recent study by Steven Johnson of the University of Virginia looked at the social media habits of nearly 200,000 people over a four-year period.
“The algorithms for Facebook are shaping what people see and what they choose to visit,” he told National Public Radio. “Our evidence is strongly consistent with the Facebook algorithms having been designed to encourage that.”
And contrary to critics’ claims that Facebook might be suppressing conservative content, the researchers found that the platform’s algorithms seemed to be prioritizing that content, at least for the most conservative users. They also found that the more time people spent on Facebook the more polarized their news sources became.
Of course, we’re not exactly innocent bystanders here. We choose the bubble we wind up living in.