The virtual hearing, set for Tuesday, was hastily called after the social networks slowed the spread of a New York Post article that suggested unproven improprieties involving the son of now President-elect Joe Biden. The move enraged Republicans, who viewed it as an effort to support Biden’s candidacy. Given that their candidate, President Donald Trump, lost his reelection bid, Republicans will likely come out swinging, complaining that the companies harbor an anti-conservative bias, which the firms deny.
The group holding the hearing, the Senate judiciary committee, will also provide another interesting twist to a Capitol Hill proceeding that could be more heated than most. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who sits on the committee, has close ties to Silicon Valley and is friendly with Zuckerberg’s No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg. She’s also the vice president-elect, a freshly minted status that likely won’t go unnoticed.
The proceeding comes nearly three weeks after Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai weathered a combative hearing in front of the Senate commerce committee regarding a law that shields internet platforms from liability for most user-generated content. The new hearing, called Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election, will likely be a fiery sequel.
A growing number of Americans are consuming their news on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. This shift to online news consumption has raised concerns about the health of the media environment, as well as worries about the power that a small group of companies wield over what we see and read. Republicans say the companies are skewed against them and censor their views. Democrats say the companies aren’t doing enough to combat the fact that bad actors have taken advantage of social networks .
Zuckerberg and Dorsey will likely deny they’re censoring content to favor one political party. They’ve pushed back on these allegations many times before. The executives will probably use the hearing to defend their companies’ handling of misinformation during and after the US election.
Obviously, the election has put a spotlight on political content, which tends to provoke strong emotions irrespective of your philosophy. Facebook says about 6% of content on the social network is political in nature.
Twitter said it hasn’t shared publicly how much of its content is political. On Thursday, the company said it labeled roughly 0.2% of election-related tweets, or 300,000 of them, for including disputed or misleading content in the period before and after the vote.
Both social networks have grappled with an onslaught of conspiracy theories, as well as false claims about voter fraud and even who won the election. Major news outlets called the presidential race for Biden, the Democratic challenger. Trump hadn’t conceded as of Friday evening.
Twitter took a tougher stance than Facebook did against election misinformation by limiting the reach of tweets, including some of Trump’s. Both Facebook and Twitter labeled Trump posts that included baseless claims about voter fraud, and directed users to online hubs with authoritative election information. Facebook pulled down a massive user group that falsely alleged Democrats were trying to steal the election, after some members called for violence.
Zuckerberg and Dorsey, already political piñatas, have experience getting smacked by senators. In late October, Dorsey sparred with Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, over Twitter’s decision to block links to the Post that included allegations about Biden’s son Hunter. Twitter said it blocked the links because the article violated rules against sharing hacked materials and personal information. But the company executed a quick about-face and stopped blocking the link. It later tweaked the policy again, developments that Cruz, who sits on the judiciary committee, will likely seize on.
Other notables on the committee include Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs it and is a key ally of the president, and Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who’s a vocal critic of Facebook and Twitter. Notable Democrats on the committee include Harris, who’s criticized Facebook in the past for not doing enough to combat misinformation, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who represents Minnesota and is being mentioned for positions in the Biden administration.
On Monday, Biden spokesman Bill Russo said in a series of tweets that Facebook was still “shredding the fabric of our democracy” days after the election and that the company hasn’t taken the problem of disinformation seriously enough.
“We pleaded with Facebook for over a year to be serious about these problems. They have not,” he tweeted. “Our democracy is on the line.”
The hearing starts on Tuesday (Nov. 17) at 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT.