Policy

Blackburn, Himes Spar Over Diamond and Silk, Social Media at Judiciary Hearing

Democrats criticize Republicans for pushing ‘hoax’ of anti-conservative bias in social media filtering algorithms

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., testified before the House Judiciary Committee about censorship on social media platforms. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Jim Himes could not be farther away from each other on the issue of social media content algorithms.

Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican running for Senate this November, testified Thursday in front of the House Judiciary Committee that today’s social media titans — Facebook, Google, and Twitter — all deploy algorithms that appear to filter out conservative voices, hurting pro-Donald Trump content creators like the popular YouTubers Diamond and Silk (who also testified on Capitol Hill Thursday).

“Big Tech platforms are the new public square, and their executives, as the gatekeepers, are the new governors,” Blackburn told the committee Thursday. “But these governments do not have a First Amendment.”

The way Blackburn sees it, there’s a sinister bias against conservative news outlets and voices on these platforms.

But ask Himes, and that left-leaning bias simply does not exist.

No, the cries in the name of free speech against social media censorship of voices on the right amount to a political ploy by conservative politicians and operatives to “play to the carefully manufactured fear of the American right that everyone is out to get them,” the Connecticut Democrat said Thursday from the Judiciary Committee witness panel.

Watch: Already Small in Number, GOP Women Incumbents Could Be In Jeopardy

Diamond and Silk were, simply, casualties of a business decision Facebook made to change how users make money on its platform. The duo’s battle with the tech company wasn’t over free speech. It was a “commercial dispute.”

If there is no perceived “siege” on conservative voices, Himes said Thursday, then “there is no fear, and there is no anger” on the right.

“And without fear and anger, well, people may not come to the polls.”

Judiciary Committee Democrats criticized their Republican colleagues for even holding the hearing, indicating it was a needless political distraction from the more serious issue of protecting America’s democratic institutions from the spread of fake news and foreign interference on social media sites.

Six government entities across the legislative and executive branches are investigating Russian influence on the 2016 elections and how officials can mitigate the damage in future years.

“The Majority is not taking this issue seriously,” a spokesman for Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler said in an email. “The Republicans wanted personalities like Diamond and Silk [on the panel] and I think people understood that this was not going to be a substantive hearing on social media, democracy and election security.”

Himes accused the GOP of holding the hearing to “promote a dishonest narrative” and “continue the hoax, now fully rebutted, that Facebook and other social media companies have mounted a crusade to filter out conservative opinion.”

Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte rebutted that claim in his opening remarks, saying social media companies have kept their content-filtering algorithms and methods behind closed doors where they cannot be scrutinized for bias.

“The method by which these companies manage [content on their platforms] is far from clear,” the Virginia Republican said.

Ari Waldman, a professor at New York Law School, said Thursday that much of the criticism of Facebook’s filtering algorithms stems from when the company redesigned its news feed algorithm to emphasize content from users’ friends and families instead of news sites.

“The result is that lots of content gets filtered out, but no more so from the right than from the left.”

Victims of racism, homophobia, and sexism on Twitter and Facebook who post about their experiences often have their content removed or are suspended or banned. Facebook has removed pictures of breastfeeding mothers. An artist who has posted portraits of gay soldiers on his Facebook account has been blocked.

“At a minimum,” Waldman said, “mistakes happen on the left just as much as they happen on the right.”

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