Comment This morning the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing with the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter to discuss making changes to a critical piece of US legislation that provides online platforms, used by billions of people, legal protections from the content those people post.
Yes, we're talking about changes to Section 230, and it was shambolic. In fact, it was worse than shambolic; it was a national embarrassment. Senator after senator appeared on screen and made wild allegations, often based on tiny, specific examples that no one else had heard of, and claimed it meant the end of democracy as we know it.
After over four hours of this, it was hard not to conclude that the greater threat to democracy is the senators themselves.
Dorsey's castaway during the virtual hearing look failed to wow senators. Source: US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Click to enlarge
There have been a number of hearings this year that have repeatedly pulled Google's Sundar Pichai, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey into the Congressional orbit in order to explain their companies’ actions – and inaction. Sadly, they have achieved little except to flag the legislature’s dangerous lack of knowledge about online platforms.
Today’s hearing, however, was a different magnitude of dysfunction. It should never have been held a week before an election.
The collective madness that overtakes the political world in election season was in full effect, with senators from both sides spouting partisan talking points that had nothing to do with the nominal topic of the hearing: “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?”
We learnt almost nothing about what Google, Twitter and Facebook actually do when it comes to the flood of information that hits them every second of every day. Instead, it was all about what the senators had already decided was the problem, based on painfully thin evidence.
All shouting, no listening
The Republicans say they are convinced that Big Tech is censoring conservative voices, although whether they actually believe that is highly debatable. The CEOs gamely tried to explain in 100 different ways why that wasn’t the case, but no one was listening.
The Democrats say they are convinced that Big Tech is not doing enough to cut down on misinformation, which they do appear to believe. But they also didn’t listen as the CEOs again gamely tried to explain in 100 different ways why that wasn’t the case.
In truth, the tech platforms are putting warnings on more messages and accounts from right-wing accounts for the simple reason that those accounts are posting more misinformation; in fact misinformation has become an entire strategy for the Republican Party under President Trump.
And in truth, tech platforms are not doing as much as they could with limiting misinformation because a) they don’t have to thanks to Section 230 and b) it is enormously time-consuming and incredibly expensive to do so. Their strategy appears to be to tackle the biggest examples of misinformation and let the rest slip through because anything else would require an enormous shift in how their services function.
That dichotomy was, somewhat unfortunately, epitomized in the recent case of a New York Post story claiming to have emails from Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, that tangentially implied that the Democratic presidential candidate might have benefited from shady influence peddling.
It is actually an interesting case study: the story is dubious to say the least. While some of a cache of emails appear to be real, the ones that are being heavily pushed are most likely not. It is transparently a political hit job with no verifiable evidence and as a result the story was turned down by several mainstream news organizations.
But Republican political operatives knew that didn’t matter if the story spread so widely on social media that it picked up its own momentum. Except in 2020, the social media companies were alert to this kind of manipulation – having been warned by the FBI to be on the lookout for it – and so when the story broke, all three of them took measures to limit its spread until the story could be verified.
There was a good debate to be had about the measures they took and how they reached those decisions and what the impact was. But, of course, the actual subject matter made that impossible. Republican feigned fury at what they insisted was censorship when in reality they were railing against the fact that an effort to shift the election was stymied – in large part because of measures that the companies had put in place following pressure from Democrats.
The Democrats had an opportunity to raise the level of conversation but also failed miserably. Rather than talk about the pros and cons of limiting the spread of suspected misinformation, they instead railed against how the Republicans had only called the hearing to raise the specter of censorship and re-up the Biden story in the final days of the election. And, of course, no one was able to resist complaining about President Trump in bitter, angry terms.
It was shameful. But even the few senators that managed to drag themselves away from partisan attack let America down when they revealed over and over again what little understanding they have of how online platforms actually work, and then failed to listen to Pichai, Dorsey and Zuckerberg when they tried to explain.
As ridiculous as it may seem, it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for the tech CEOs who, frankly, had much better things to do with their time than listen to a bunch of squabbling kids. The only benefit to them was that it prevented substantive discussion of Section 230 liability protections which they don’t want changed because of its huge benefit to them. It’s hard to imagine that Congress will manage to reach any kind of agreement on changes to the law if they can’t focus on the issue during their own hearing on the topic.
The worst example?
There were so many examples of appalling behavior that it’s hard to choose one. And it needs to be just one because it’s too tiring to go into more than one. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) should get an honorable mention for being most objectionable. But in terms of sheer idiocy of questioning, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) was up there with the best when he asked:
“I don’t expect you to have taken poll of your employees but I just want to get a kind of a sense – because I think it’s pretty obvious – but would you say the political ideology of the employees of your company is, let’s say, 50-50 conservative versus liberal/progressive, or do you think it’s closer to 90 per cent liberal/10 per cent conservative?”
Aside from the fact Johnson notes within his question that the CEOs won’t know the answer but he’ll ask it anyway AND the fact that he’s already decided what the answer is going to be and won’t accept anything other than that, the entire premise of the question – that the political leanings of employees will decide policies whose impact is much broader than partisan disputes – is itself faulty.
The CEOs gamely responded – but no normal functioning member of society would imagine the question served any useful purpose when it comes to digging into the issue of Section 230 and online platforms. And that is pretty much how the entire hearing went down.
The only issue worth noting is that Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has again broken ranks with the tech industry and said that he thinks it “makes sense to modify Section 230” to bring it inline with modern realities. But that Zuck hopes people will consider the impact on smaller companies and so either waive the impact of any changes on them, or add some kind of minimum (money or users) before any changes are imposed.
But there was a much greater irony surrounding the hearing. At the same time a virtually worthless discussion was going on within Congress, the online version of what was being discussed was dramatically different – and worse. Reams of tweets and posts emanated from political accounts that painted an entirely false view of what had happened.
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Ted Cruz’s team had even prepared graphics that looked like a boxing match and seeded Twitter asking people to tune in to see him berate Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
And within minutes of nonsensical angry questions being asked by senators in the hearing, video grabs of the questions – minus responses or context – were put together and posted online, presumably in an effort to make it look as though they were standing up to Big Tech and grilling their CEOs.
Social media misinformation has become the goal. It’s no wonder that Congress can’t agree on how to limit or manage it when they are focused on producing their own versions. The bigger question may just be: is it time to reflect on the fact that COVID-19 has brought the globe to a standstill and decide that “going viral” is something that needs to be stamped out?
There was however one thing that everyone could agree on: Jack Dorsey’s long, scraggly beard is an absolute disgrace. Seriously man, get some beard oil as an absolute minimum. ®