Grandstanding Idiots In Congress Attack Social Media For Censoring Too Much And Too Little Without Understanding Anything

from the that's-not-how-it-works dept

So, yesterday the House Judiciary Committee did what the House Judiciary Committee seems to do best: hold a stupid, nonsensical, nearly fact-free "hearing" that serves as nothing more than an opportunity for elected members of Congress to demonstrate their ignorance of an important topic, while attempting to play to their base. This time, the topic was on the content filtering practices of Facebook, Twitter and Google. Back in May there was actually a whole one day conference in Washington DC on this topic. The Judiciary Committee would have been a lot better served attending that than holding this hearing. I'd recommend not wasting three hours of your life watching this thing, but if you must:

The shortest summary would be that some Republican members of Congress think that these websites censor too much conservative speech, and some Democratic members of Congress think that they don't censor enough other speech (including hoaxes and conspiracy theories)... and almost no one wants to admit that this is not even remotely an issue that Congress should be concerned about. There's a narrative that has been picked up by many that insist that social media platforms are unfairly censoring "conservatives." There is basically zero evidence to support this. Indeed, a thorough analysis of the data back in March by Nieman Labs and Newswhip found that conservative-leaning sites get much, much, much more engagement on Facebook than liberal-leaning sites.

But, never let facts get in the way of a narrative. Since that seems to be the way many hyperpartisan sites (at either end of the spectrum) deal with these things, Congress is helping out. The only bit of sanity, perhaps bizarrely, came from Rep. Ted Lieu, who reminded everyone of the importance of free markets, free speech and the fact that private platforms get to decide how they manage their own services. Considering that Republicans often like to claim the mantle of being the "small, limited government" party who wants the government's hands out of business regulation, the fact that most of the hearing involved Republicans screaming for regulating internet platforms and a Democrat reminding everyone about the importance of a free market, capitalism and free speech, it really was quite a hearing. Lieu's remarks were some of the rare moments of sanity during the hearing -- including defending Facebook leaving Alex Jones' conspiracy theories on its site. Let's start with that high point before we dive into the awfulness. His comments come at about 2 hours and 10 minutes into the video:

... we're having this ridiculous hearing on the content of speech of private sector companies. It's stupid because there's this thing called the First Amendment. We can't regulate content! The only thing worse than an Alex Jones video is the government trying to tell Google... to prevent people from watching the Alex Jones video. We can't even do it if we tried. We can't even do any legislation out of this committee. And we're having this ridiculous second installment hearing after the first hearing about Diamond and Silk not getting enough likes on Facebook.

He then went on to ask questions "so the American public understands what a dumb hearing this is." And those questions -- again -- seemed like the kinds more expected from supposedly "free market" conservatives. Specifically he asked the companies if they were private companies aiming to maximize profits for shareholders. And he wasn't doing that to show that companies were evil, he was doing that to show that that's how the free market works. He followed up with this:

I noticed all of you talked about your own internal rules. Because that's what this should be about. You all get to come up with your own rules. But not because government tells you what to do. Or because government says you have to rule this way or that way. And the whole notion that somehow we should be interfering with these platforms from a legislative, governmental point of view is an anathema to the First Amendment. And really it's about the marketplace of ideas.

Kudos to Rep. Lieu. This is the kind of speech that you'd normally expect to hear from a "small government" conservative who talks about respecting the Constitution. But, in this case, it's a Democrat. And it's shameful that others (on both sides of the aisle) weren't making the same point. Instead, there was a ton of pure nonsense spewed from the Republicans at the hearing. It's hard to fathom that the following statements were made by people we've actually elected to our legislative body. There were so many dumb statements made that it's difficult to pick out just a few.

Let's start with Rep. Steve King, who has made quite a name for himself saying and repeating bigoted nonsense. Starting at about an hour and five minutes in the video, King seemed particularly concerned about traffic to Gateway Pundit, a site famous for trafficking in utter nonsense.

It's a matter of Congressional record that Gateway Pundit, Mr. Jim Hoft, has introduced information into the record that in the span of time between 2016 and 2018, he saw his Facebook traffic cut by 54%. Could you render an explanation to that?

Um... what? How the hell is it of any concern to Congress whatsoever the traffic a single site gets? And, as we were just discussing recently, traffic to lots of news sites from Facebook has dropped massively as Facebook has de-prioritized news. In that post, we pointed out that Slate was self-reporting a drop in Facebook traffic over that same period of time of 87%. Based on that, why isn't King asking about Slate's traffic dropping? Perhaps because Gateway Pundit publishes the kind of nonsense King supports and Slate points out that King is a bigot?

And... isn't that, again, kind of the point of the First Amendment? To protect news sites from having Congress play favorites?

Incredibly, King then concludes his time by first claiming he's all for free speech and free enterprise, but wonders about turning social media sites into regulated utilities.

I'm all for freedom of speech and free enterprise and for competition and finding a way that we can have competition itself that does its own regulation, so government doesn't have to, but if this gets further out of hand, it appears to me that Section 230 needs to be reviewed, and one of the discussions that I'm hearing is 'what about converting the large behemoth organizations that we're talking about here into public utilities.'

Are we living in an upside down world? A Democrat is praising the free market, profits and free speech, and a Republican is advocating for limiting free speech and in favor of turning some of the most successful US companies into public utilities? What is even going on here?

Around an hour and 18 minutes, we get our old friend Rep. Louis Gohmert, who has a fairly long and extensive history of making the dumbest statements possible concerning technology issues. And he lived down to his usual reputation in this hearing as well. It starts off by him trying to play down the issue of Russian interference in elections, by claiming (?!?) that the Russians helped Truman get elected, and then claiming that Russians had helped basically every Democratic President get elected in the past 70 years. And then spent a long time trying to complain that the platforms wouldn't tell him if Chinese or North Korean intelligence services had also used their platforms. Remember, these companies were asked to come and testify specifically about Russian use of their platforms to interfere with the election and Gohmert stepped in with this insane "what about other countries, huh?" argument:

Gohmert: I need to ask each of you. You've been asked specifically about Russian use of your platforms. But did you ever find any indication of use of your platform, utilized by the Chinese, North Korea, or any other foreign country intelligence or agency of that country. First, Ms. Bickert?

Bickert/Facebook: I would note, Congressman, that we're not in North Korea or China. In terms of whether we've seen attacks on our services, we do have -- we are, of course, a big target -- we do have a robust security team that works...

Gohmert: Well, but that's not my question. It's just a very direct question. Have you found... You don't have to be in North Korea to be North Korean Intelligence and use... We have foreign government intelligence agencies IN THIS COUNTRY. So have... It seems to me you were each a little bit vague about "oh yes, we found hundreds" or whatever. I'm asking specifically, were any of those other countries besides Russia that were using your platform inappropriately? It should be a yes or no.

Actually, no, it shouldn't be a yes or no. That's a dumb and misleading question for a whole long list of reasons. Of course, lots of other intelligence agencies are using Facebook, because of course they are. But, the entire point of this line of questioning seems to be Gohmert trying to play down Russian use of the platform, which is... odd. Especially after he started out by praising the fact that maybe the Russians might help "our side" get elected going forward.

Bickert: I don't have the details. I know we work to detect and repel attacks...

Gohmert: I know that. But were any of them foreign entities other than Russia?

Bickert: I can certainly follow up with you on that.

Gohmert: SO YOU DON'T KNOW?!? You sure seemed anxious to answer the Democrats questions about RUSSIA's influence. And you don't really know of all the groups that inappropriately used your platform? You don't know which were Russians and which were other foreign entities?

No, that's not what she's saying at all. She's pretty clearly saying that this hearing was specifically about Russian influence and that's what she was prepared to testify on. She didn't say that Facebook can't tell Russians from other entities, just that the other entities aren't the ones accused of messing with the election and thus there isn't that much relevant right now. But that's quite a deflection attempt by Gohmert.

Let's move on to Rep. Tom Marino at about an hour and a half into the video. Marino seems to have a fairly bizarre understanding of the law as it concerns defamation. He focuses on the guy from Twitter, Nick Pickles, and starts out by reading a definition of "libel." Then he asks

Have any of you considered libel? Or do you think you are immune from it?

This is an incredibly stupid question. Twitter is clearly not immune from libel. Marino's line of questioning is an attempt to attack CDA 230, which provides immunity to Twitter from liability for defamatory statements made by its users. This is an important distinction that Marino conveniently ignores as he continues to bug Pickles.

Pickles: We have clear rules that governs what happens on Twitter. Some of those behaviors are deplorable and we want to remove them immediately... So, terrorist content is one example, where we now detect 95% of the terrorist accounts we remove...

Marino: Okay, I understand that sir. But how about... we in Congress, we put up with it all the time. I know we're public officials, same with people in the movies... but do you specifically look for and address... republication can be used in a defamation case. Do you look at libel and defamation content?

I don't even know what that means. Do you look at libel content? What? How does Twitter know if something is libelous? Especially against public officials? How is Twitter supposed to make that judgment when that's what courts are there to figure out? And, for what it's worth, Twitter has been known to abide by court rulings on defamatory speech in deciding to take down that content, but Marino seems to be asking if they make an independent judgment outside of the courts of what's libelous. Which is both crazy and impossible. Pickles makes a valiant effort in response, noting how Twitter focuses on its rules -- which is all that it's required to do -- but Marino clearly seems to want to attack CDA 230 and magically make Twitter liable for libelous content on its platform. After Pickles again explains that it focuses on its rules, rather than making judicial rulings that it cannot make, Marino puts on a dumb smirk and makes another dumb statement:

With all due respect, I've heard you focus on your rules about 32 times. DO. YOU. LOOK. FOR. LIBEL. OR. DEFAMATION. IN. YOUR. COMPANY'S. OPINION?

You can't "look for libel or defamation" like that. That's not how it works. Marino is a lawyer. He should know this. The Facebook and YouTube representatives neatly sidestep Marino's silly line of questioning by pointing out that when informed of legal rulings determining "illegal" speech, they take it down. Marino doesn't even seem to notice this very specific distinction and asks "where do you draw the line?"

At an hour and forty minutes, we have everyone's favorite, Rep. Lamar Smith, author of SOPA back in the day. He spews more utter nonsense claiming conservatives have been more negatively impacted by the moves of these social media companies, and then (bizarrely) argues that Google employees forcing the company not to help surveillance activity is somehow an attack on conservatives. Excuse me? Conservatives don't support the 4th Amendment any more? Say what? But the real craziness is this line:

Google has also deleted or blocked references to Jesus, Chick-Fil-A and the Catholic religion.

I'm going to call time out here and note [citation needed] on that one, Smith. Google pretty clearly shows me results on all three of those things. I've been trying to figure out what the hell he's referring to, and I'm guessing that Smith -- in his usual Smithian nonsensical way -- is confusing Google for Facebook, and Facebook's bad filter that initially blocked a page about "Chick-fil-Appreciation Day," and some Catholic church pages. The "Jesus" blocking is also Facebook and was in reference to an ad for a Catholic university.

All of these examples were not, as Smith implies, evidence of "liberal bias" on behalf of Facebook, but rather evidence of why it's so problematic that governments are putting so much pressure on Facebook to magically filter out all of the bad stuff. That's not possible without making mistakes. And what happens is that you set up guidelines and those guidelines are then handed to people who don't have nearly enough time to understand the context, and sometimes they make mistakes. It's not bias. It's the nature of trying to moderate millions of pieces of content every damn day, because if they don't, these same idiots in Congress would be screaming at them about how they're letting the bad content live on. I mean, it's doubly ridiculous for Smith to use the Jesus example as even the guy who bought the ad, the university's web communications director, specifically said that he didn't believe it had anything to do with bias, but was just a bad decision by an algorithm or a low level staffer.

Finally (and there are more, but damn, this post is getting way too long) we get to Rep. Matt Gaetz. At around an hour and 55 minutes into the hearing, he suddenly decides to weigh in that the First Amendment and CDA 230 are somehow in conflict, in another bizarre exchange between Gaetz and Twitter's Pickles.

Gaetz: Is it your testimony or is it your viewpoint today that Twitter is an interactive computer service pursuant to Section 230 sub c(1).

Pickles: I'm not a lawyer, so I won't want to speak to that. But as I understand, under Section 230, we are protected by that, yes.

Gaetz: So Section 230 covers you, and that section says "no provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another"... is it your contention that Twitter enjoys a First Amendment right under speech, while at the same time enjoying Section 230 rights?

Pickles: Well, I think we've discussed the way the First Amendment interacts with our companies. As private companies we enforce our rules, and our rules prohibit a range of activities.

Gaetz: I'm not asking about your rules. I'm asking about whether or not you believe you have First Amendment rights. You either do or you do not.

Pickles: I'd like to follow up on that, as someone who is not a lawyer... I think it's very important...

Gaetz: Well, you're the senior public policy official for Twitter before us and you will not answer the question whether or not you believe your company enjoys rights under the First Amendment?

Pickles: Well, I believe we do, but I would like to confirm with colleagues...

Gaetz: So what I want to understand is, if you say "I enjoy rights under the First Amendment" and "I'm covered by Section 230" and Section 230 itself says "no provider shall be considered the speaker" do you see the tension that creates?

There is no tension there. The only tension is between the molecules in Gaetz's brain that seemed to think this line of nonsensical argument makes any sense at all. There is no conflict. First, yes, it's obvious that Twitter is clearly protected by both the First Amendment and CDA 230. That's been established by dozens of court rulings with not a single ruling ever holding otherwise. Second, the "tension" that Gaetz sees is purely a figment of his own misreading of the law. The "no provider shall be considered a speaker" part, read in actual context (as Gaetz did earlier) does not say that platforms are not speakers. It says that they are not considered a speaker of other people's speech. In fact, this helps protect free speech by enabling internet platforms the ability to host any speech without facing liability for that speech.

That helps protect the First Amendment by ensuring that any liability is on the speaker and not on the tool they use to distribute that speech. But Twitter has its own First Amendment rights to determine what speech it decides to keep on its site -- and which speech it decides not to allow. Gaetz then, ridiculous, tries to claim that Pickle's response to that nonsensical response is somehow in conflict with what Twitter's lawyers have said in the silly Jared Taylor lawsuit. Gaetz asks Pickles if Twitter could kick someone off the platform "for being a woman or being gay." Pickles points out that that is not against Twitter's rules... and Gaetz points out that in the Taylor case, when asked the same question, Twitter's lawyers stated (1) that Twitter has the right to do so but (2) never would.

Again, both Pickles and Twitter's lawyers are correct. They do have that right (assuming it's not a violation of discrimination laws) but of course they wouldn't do that. Pickles wasn't denying that. He was pointing out that the hypothetical is silly because that's not something Twitter would do. Twitter's lawyers in the case were, correctly, pointing out that it would have the right to do such a nonsensical thing if it chose to do so, while also making it clear it would never do that. Again, that's not in conflict, but Gaetz acts as if he's "caught" Twitter in some big admission.

Gaetz falsely then claims that Pickles is misrepresenting Twitter's position:

Right but it is not in service of transparency if Twitter sends executives to Congress to say one thing -- that you would not have the right to engage in that conduct -- and then your lawyers in litigation say precisely the opposite.

Except that's not what happened at all. Pickles and the lawyers agreed. At no point did Pickles say that Twitter did not have "the right" to kick people off its platform for any reason. He just noted that it was not a part of their policy to do so, nor would it ever be. That's entirely consistent with what Twitter's lawyers said in the Taylor case. This is Gaetz making a complete ass out of himself in completely misrepresenting the law, the constitution and what Twitter said both in the hearing and in the courthouse.

Seriously, people, we need to elect better Representatives to Congress. This is embarrassing.

Filed Under: cda 230, congress, first amendment, free speech, grandstanding, house judiciary committee, lamar smith, louis gohmert, matt gaetz, social media, steve king, ted lieu, tom marino
Companies: facebook, google, twitter, youtube

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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 18 Jul 2018 @ 10:01am

    Question: Why should Twitter be forced to host speech which the platform’s owners/administrators do not want to host?

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