from the this-is-not-how-any-of-this-works dept
On Wednesday morning the Senate Commerce Committee held a nearly four hour long hearing ostensibly about Section 230 with three internet CEOs: Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, Sundar Pichai from Google, and Jack Dorsey from Twitter. The hearing went about as expected: meaning it was mostly ridiculous nonsense. You had multiple Republican Senators demanding that these CEOs explain why they had taken actions on certain content, with some silly “whataboutism” on other kinds of content where action wasn’t taken. Then you had multiple Democratic Senators demanding these CEOs explain why they hadn’t taken faster action on pretty much the same content that Republicans had complained some action had been taken on.
The shorter summary was that Republicans were demanding that their own lies and propaganda should be left alone, while Democrats demanded that lies and propaganda should be removed faster. Both of these positions are an anathema to the 1st Amendment, and the people advocating for them on both sides should be embarrassed. While each platform has the right, under the 1st Amendment, to host or not host whatever speech they want, based on whatever policies they set, Congress cannot and should not, be in the position of either telling companies what content they need to host or what content they must take down. And yet, we saw examples of both during the hearing. On the Democratic side, Senators Markey and Baldwin, among a few others, pushed the companies to take down more content. This is extremely troubling on 1st Amendment grounds. On the Republican side, many, many Senators demanded that certain content should be unblocked — in particular the NY Post’s Twitter account.
And there were a few (very limited) good points from both sides of the aisle. Senator Brian Schatz noted that the entire hearing was being done in bad faith by Senate Republicans to try to bully the companies into not removing disinformation in the final week of the election. He noted that, while he had many questions for the three CEOs, he would not participate in this “sham” by asking questions during this particular hearing. Kudos to him. On the Republican side, Senator Jerry Moran noted that changes to Section 230 were the kinds of things that the three companies before the Committee could handle, but which would hamstring smaller competitors (to be fair, Jack Dorsey made this point in his opening testimony as well).
But I wanted to focus on some specific grandstanding by a few key Senators who made particularly ridiculous statements. And, I will point out upfront that these all came from Republicans. I’m not pointing that out because I’m “biased” against them, but because of the simple objective fact that it was these Republican Senators who made the most ridiculous statements of the day. The key theme between them was a ridiculous sense of grievance, and a false belief that the company’s moderation practices unfairly targeted “conservatives.” Except nearly all of them assumed that because more Republicans were moderated, that was proof of bias — and not the idea that, perhaps, Republicans do more things that violate the policies of these companies. In the same manner that I’m picking on mostly Republican Senators here, that has more to do with their own actions, than any personal “bias.”
What was most frightening, however, in the comments from these Senators is how at home they would have been in the days of Joseph McCarthy. Multiple Senators demanded to know about the personal ideological viewpoints of people who worked for these companies. Both Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg correctly pointed out that they do not ask their employees about their political leanings (Pichai stated that they hire from all over, implying that there was a diverse ideological pool within their workforce).
It is stunning and dangerous for Senators to be demanding to know the political leanings of employees at any particular company. Senators Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn all asked questions along these lines. Lee, who historically has been aligned with libertarian viewpoints, completely misrepresented the content moderation policies of these companies and insisted that they disproportionately target conservatives. They do not. If conservatives are violating their policies more than others, then that’s on those people violating the policies, and not on the policies themselves. Lee also fell into the ridiculous myth that Google’s policies directly targeted conservatives in demonetizing The Federalist. As we’ve discussed multiple times, that’s utter bullshit. We received identical treatment to The Federalist. So did Slate and Buzzfeed. Lee, ridiculously, argued that the companies saying — accurately — that they do not target moderation decisions based on ideology perhaps violated laws against “unfair or deceptive trade practices.” Basically because Lee falsely believes these companies target conservative speech (because he’s so deep in his own filter bubble he doesn’t even know it hits others as well), that they’re engaging in deceptive practices.
Lee demanded that each company list “left leaning” accounts that had received similar treatment, and the various CEOs promised to get back to him, but this was a nonsense argument.
However the most ridiculous part of Lee’s grandstanding was his disingenuous framing of content moderation. He started asking about how these companies “censor” content. In the past, we’ve discussed how moderation and censorship differ, but Lee stretched the definition to insane levels:
I think the trend is clear, you almost always censor — meaning…. uh… when I use the word censor here I mean block content, fact check or label content, or demonetize websites.
In what fucking world does Senator Lee live in that fact checking is censorship? This is utter nonsense. Indeed, when Sundar Pichai actually pushed back and said “we don’t censor,” Lee jumped in obnoxiously to say that “I used the word censor as a term of art there and I defined that word.” That’s not how it works. You can’t redefine a term to mean the literal opposite of what it means “as a term of art” and then demand that everyone agrees that they “censored” when your own definition includes fact checking or responding to a statement with more speech.
Senator Ron Johnson’s time was particularly egregious. He read the following tweet into the record.
It’s a tweet from a “Mary T. Hagan” saying:
Sen Ron Johnson is my neighbor and strangled our dog, Buttons, right in front of my 4 yr old son and 3 yr old daughter. The police refuse to investigate. This is a complete lie but important to retweet and note that there are more of my lies to come.
Yes, he read that whole thing into the record, and then whined directly to Jack Dorsey that this should not have been left up, and that people might not go to the polls and vote for him if they read it. It’s hard to know where to begin on this one. Especially since it came right after Johnson was mad about other moderation choices Twitter had made to takedown content. But the most incredible bit was that the obvious point of this tweet (which seemed to fly right over Johnson’s head) is to make fun of Johnson’s own willingness over the past few months to push Russian-originated propaganda talking points, and then whine that the media won’t do anything about it and that law enforcement won’t investigate.
So, a simple question for Johnson to answer would be: if he wants this tweet removed, how about removing his own efforts at pushing unverified propagandistic nonsense about Joe Biden?
But, really, this was par for the course for so much of the hearing. Senators (both Democrats and Republicans) showing a vast misunderstanding of how content moderation works, would call up a single example of a content moderation choice and demand an explanation — often ignoring the explanations from Dorsey and Zuckerberg who would calmly explain what their policy was, why a certain piece of content did or did not violate that policy — and then scream louder as if they had found some sort of “gotcha” moment.
But honestly, the most insane moment of the hearing most likely involved Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee. Blackburn has a long history of saying the complete opposite argument depending on which way the wind blows at any particular time. For example, during the net neutrality fight she screamed about how it was an example of government interference with innovation and that if we had net neutrality it would destroy “Facebook, YouTube, Twitter” (literally those three companies). Yet a few years later, she supported a bill to regulate the internet in the form of PIPA, a pro-censorship copyright bill.
Then, four years ago, she insisted that internet services had an obligation to delete “fake news.” Yet, in the hearing on Wednesday, she flipped out at the companies for trying to moderate any news at all.
And then she took it one step further, and demanded to know if a Google engineer who made fun of her was still employed at the company.
Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked CEO Sundar Pichai whether Blake Lemoine, a senior software engineer and artificial intelligence researcher, still has a job at Google.
?He has had very unkind things to say about me and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there,? Blackburn said during the hearing, where she and other GOP lawmakers accused tech companies of squelching free speech.
Pichai said he did not know Lemoine?s employment status.
Breitbart News reported in 2018 that Lemoine had criticized Blackburn?s legislative record in excerpts of internal company messages and said Google should not ?acquiesce to the theatrical demands of a legislator.?
?I?m not big on negotiation with terrorists,? Lemoine said, according to Breitbart.
Having a sitting US Senator specifically call out an employee for criticizing her, and asking to know his employment status is fundamentally terrifying. It is, again, reminiscent of the McCarthy hearings, and having elected officials targeting people for their political viewpoints. If people were serious about calling out “cancel culture,” they’d be screaming about how dangerous it is that Blackburn was saying something like this.
The end result of the hearing was a lot more nonsense grandstanding that demonstrated that too many Senators simply do not understand the nature of content moderation, and because they personally disagree with certain policies, or the implementation of certain policies, it means that the companies are somehow doing it wrong. But this is the very nature of content moderation. No single human being will agree with every decision. To immediately leap to the assumption of bad intent (or bad policies) because you disagree with a small sample set of decisions is intellectually lazy and dishonest.
Oh, and Ted Cruz also did some theatrical bullshit, that was mostly performative idiocy, but since he only did it to get a few social media snippets and headlines, we’re not going to play that game, and just say simply that Senator Cruz came off like a total disingenuous jackass, who wanted to make the hearing about himself, rather than anything even remotely substantive.
Filed Under: content moderation, ed markey, grandstanding, jack dorsey, mark zuckerberg, marsha blackburn, mike lee, ron johnson, section 230, senate commerce committee, sundar pichai, ted cruz
Companies: facebook, google, twitter