Senate Judiciary subcommittee grills social media execs about political bias safeguards

Senate Judiciary subcommittee grills social media execs about political bias safeguards

By TMN Interns   
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. (Doug Christian/TMN/file photo)

By Justine Lopez

WASHINGTON – Senior executives from Facebook and Twitter tried to convince the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution that safeguards the companies have in place assure that the public forums remain neutral.

“The notion that we would silence any political perspective is antithetical to our commitment to free expression,” Carlos Monje Jr., director of public policy and philanthropy, U.S. & Canada Twitter, said during this week’s hearing.

Monje, alongside fellow witness Neil Potts, Facebook’s public policy director, answered numerous questions on Wednesday from committee members ranging from censorship of political views to transparency on flagging protocols.

Both of the tech giants’ executives denied having a bias toward a specific political view; however, Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) offered anecdotal proof otherwise. Cruz said that relying on anecdotal evidence is his only option to prove the suppression of conservative views.

“We have no data. There is no transparency,” Cruz said. “Nobody knows what the raw data is in terms of bias.”

Republican committee members questioned the executives about their protocols for flagging content, citing Twitter’s temporary account ban on the anti-abortion movie “Unplanned” and censoring of Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) campaign video. The Twitter account for “Unplanned” inexplicably disappeared the morning after the movie opened on March 29. Blackburn, a conservative who calls herself “100 percent pro-life” said in October 2017 that Twitter censored a campaign video because the company considered an anti-abortion remark it contained “inflammatory” and “negative.” Twitter said Blackburn’s promoted tweets about the ad violated its advertising rules, although it did not suspend the campaign’s account.

The Twitter account for “Unplanned” has since been put back on public view, but Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) requested that Twitter and Facebook undergo a third-party audit. Both companies declined an audit in favor of their own in-house transparency reports, which are available to the public.

The chairman’s solutions to remedy the reach of social media companies include re-examining a provision of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of the act provides immunity from liability to social media platforms that publish information only from third-party users. Whether that means adding more restrictions to the act or broadening its provisions is still being questioned.

Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said that adding more restrictions to Section 230 could have a regressive effect on the First Amendment.

“Limiting the immunity under 230 would probably result in more filtering and censorship by these companies rather than less,” Kontorovich said during his hearing panel.

Kontorovich said the more straightforward solution would be to require social media platforms to be more transparent about how they filter content. This would cut out user assumptions about why they are seeing something on social media. Kontorovich cautioned, however, that this is no easy feat.

“It’s one thing to say that we monitor hateful content,” he said. “That could mean a wide variety of things and specifying how that is applied is going to be difficult. The devil is in the details.”

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