Noting Facebook’s recent blocking of a post of the Declaration of Independence as “hate speech,” the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee opened a hearing Tuesday declaring his intent to find out from representatives of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter if the tech giants are using their power to suppress a particular viewpoint.
Democrats, charging Republicans are pushing an “imaginary narrative that media companies are biased against conservatives,” immediately tried to change the subject.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the committee’s vice chairman, insisted the hearing should be about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and President Trump’s “abject humiliation before the entire world” Monday in Helsinki by giving credence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of interference in the race.
Rep. Jerald Nadler, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member – declaring a “national emergency” with the nation “under attack” from Russia in light of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers – then made a motion to move into executive session.
Nadler declared the Mueller indictment is the equivalent of the “Phoenix memo” that warned of the 9/11 attack.
“This is a catastrophe in the making. If we do not take any action, the American people may not trust the outcome of the next election,” he said.
The motion was defeated by the Republican majority on a 12-10 partisan vote, but Democratic members such as Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., continued trying to change the subject, charging Trump “humiliated America on the world stage” and “has gone from acting like a dictator to prostrating himself to a dictator.”
Johnson accused Republicans of instead wanting to “bully” Facebook about how it treated the pro-Trump video bloggers “Diamond & Silk” or how Twitter blocked Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s senatorial campaign account.
Republican members of the committee, led by chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., mostly pressed on with the question of whether the social-media companies are applying standards for filtering content that “endanger our free and open society and its culture of freedom of expression,” stifling, in particular, conservative media outlets.
Tech giants agree Russian interference minimal
But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, saw an opportunity to put the claims of Russian meddling that have dogged President Trump’s administration — at least with regard to social media — in perspective.
He asked the tech company representatives to confirm their previous statements that the Russian activity on their platforms to influence the 2016, led by the Internet Research Agency, was minimal or “limited.”
Juniper Downs, global head of public policy and government relations for YouTube, confirmed her company found two Internet Research Agency accounts that spent less than $5,000 in advertising and 18 YouTube channels with just over 1,000 videos in English that were terminated as soon as YouTube identified them.
Nick Pickles, senior strategist for public policy for Twitter, which has 336 million users, said the Russian activity amounted to “several thousand” accounts, and he said Twitter has taken steps to make sure the accounts can’t be restored.
Monika Bickert, head of global policy management for Facebook, said that with a total of more than 2 billion users, her company found fewer than 500 pages, groups and accounts related to Russian meddling.
“So what all three of you are telling us,” Labrador concluded, “is that the Democrats’ campaign was so weak that this limited activity apparently influenced the elections and caused the United States to choose the wrong person for president.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, sought to add some perspective with a history lesson, noting there were many accusations during the communist era of Soviet interference in American elections going back some 70 years that Democrats largely ignored.
“I am thrilled that we’re going to get help from across the aisle to get it stopped,” Gohmert deadpanned.
The Texas lawmaker asked the witnesses if Russia was the only foreign entity that engaged in any election interference through social media, citing China and North Korea as other possibilities.
All three said they only had specific knowledge of Russian interference.
Frustrated by their response, Gohmert said the witnesses apparently came prepared only “to answer Democrats’ questions.”
One person’s ‘fake news’ is another’s ‘gospel truth’
Addressing the main subject of the hearing, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, expressed concern about the viability of Facebook’s efforts to combat “fake news” through computer algorithms and a panel of five news organizations that serve as “third-party fact checkers.”
“The whole idea of now we are going to have corporations censor speech based upon their definition of fake news, based on their definition of hate speech is opening up a Pandora’s box,” Poe said.
“What one person may think is fake news, somebody else believes is the gospel truth.”
At a House hearing April 11, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Silicon Valley is “an extremely left-leaning place” while insisting his company is a neutral platform for ideas.
In May, however, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey saying they were “alarmed by numerous allegations that Facebook has blocked content from conservative journalists and groups, and Twitter has hidden such content from conservative users’ followers.” They pointed out that in 2016, former Facebook workers claimed they manipulated the “trending” section to exclude news tailored to conservative users, despite those topics trending on their own. Conservative Twitter users, in addition, have accused the company of purging thousands of their followers to stem “fake news” content.
In April, the House Judiciary Committee held the first hearing in the series on social media filtering, featuring the pro-Trump video bloggers “Diamond & Silk.”
In her opening statement, Bickert acknowledged Facebook “badly mishandled our communications with them, and since then we’ve worked hard to improve our relationship.”
“We appreciate the perspective that they add to our platform,” she said.
Monitors of ‘fake’ news control 75% of digital advertising
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, noting reports that the companies represented by the three witnesses control some three-quarters of the digital advertising market, asked Bickert how Facebook determines what is “false” news.
She explained that if a particular news story is flagged as “false” either by users or a content algorithm, it goes to third-party fact checkers. If only one of the fact checkers rates the story “true,” it is not “downranked,” or buried, in News Feeds.
If all five of the fact checkers report the content as false, its distribution is reduced and Facebook puts competing stories below it, said Bickert.
She said the five current fact checkers are approved by Poynter, the non-profit journalism institute. They are the Associated Press, FackCheck.org, PolitiFact, Snopes and the Weekly Standard, the conservative-leaning publication that was recently added to the objection of the left-wing Media Matters and others.
She said other organizations can be added to the team if they apply and “meet the standards.”
How should we hold you accountable?
Much of the interchange Tuesday centered on whether or not the social media companies should be treated as content providers and, therefore, subject to laws that govern newspapers.
Facebook, Google and others have been protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., noted that Google, “scraping” information from Wikipedia, recently generated a “knowledge panel” in a search page for the California Republican Party that listed “Nazism” as the first descriptor of the party’s ideology.
The congressman acknowledged that with emerging technologies such mistakes can be made, and Google corrected that one. But he said the concern is that Google essentially used Wikipedia information as its own content, “meaning you’re providing not a link to this site, but you’re, in fact, putting their information out as your information.”
How, then, should Google be held accountable, the congressman wanted to know. Should it be governed by the laws that govern newspapers?
“When you absorb the content,” Issa asked, “aren’t your absorbing the responsibility?”
Downs of YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, called the California GOP incident a case of “vandalism” that the social media platform normally catches and insisted the knowledge panels essentially are still links to other content.
Google continues to follow “the traditional model of search,” she said.
The knowledge panels are “just an opportunity for users to get information at a glance alongside organic search results.”
Issa narrowed his inquiry, asking each of the representatives, “Should we open you up to litigation under the standards of care that … other media are held to?
Bickert replied she believes operating under Section 230 is “essential” for companies such as hers and “consistent with operating safe products that give consumers choice.”
Downs said, “We believe that the openness that’s enabled by 230 has brought tremendous benefits to the world, and for most of our products and services we don’t do the things traditional publishing operations do, like author or copy-edit content.”
Pickles said treating his company like a newspaper puts free speech and competition at risk.
“Our role is to have clear rules, to enforce those rules well and to be more transparent in how we’re doing that, to build trust and confidence,” he said.
Issa commented in conclusion: “Mr. Chairman, I appreciate all of their comments, but I would note that free speech was created and supported by a newspaper system from our founding that lived by different rules.”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, asked Bickert to explain why the conservative Gateway Pundit blog saw a drop of 54 percent in its traffic from 2016 to 2018.
She said she “can’t speak to anyone individual” but acknowledged a change in the way Facebook’s News Feed algorithm works. The algorithm, she said, “looks at things like the type of content the user tends to interact with,” as well as “recency” and the “engagement it is generating.”
Bickert explained that more than 100 organizations are involved in creating the algorithms.
Asked if one of them is the controversial Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated pro-life, traditional marriage and border-enforcement advocates as “hate groups,” she replied, “No, not that I’m aware of.”
King, qualifying that he is “all for freedom of speech and competition so that government doesn’t have to regulate,” posed the possibility of reviewing Section 230 and raising the question of whether or not the internet giants should be converted into public utilities.