Executives from the world’s top social media companies tried to reassure Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday that their platforms do not censor or control conservative content and commentary, contrary to assertions by some lawmakers about the companies’ practices.
While social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been removing false accounts, fake ads, and banning foreign government-owned propaganda outlets, lawmakers said some of them also have been restricting conservative content.
There are “numerous stories in the news of content that’s still being unfairly restricted,” Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said in his opening remarks at the hearing to examine the content filtering practices of social media companies. “For example, Facebook automatically blocked a post from a Texas newspaper that it claimed contained hate speech” when in fact the newspaper had published the Declaration of Independence just before Independence Day on July 4, Goodlatte said.
In a committee hearing held in April to examine the same topic, Goodlatte said that while social media companies were “exercising great care and discretion to ensure that their services are not abused,” there is a “fine line between removing illegal activity and suppressing free speech.”
Goodlatte and other Republicans on the panel at Tuesday’s hearing also pushed company executives to say why content on their platforms cannot be considered as publishing or broadcasting and therefore subject to rules that apply to television and other broadcasting platforms.
Laws, including Sec. 230 of the Telecommunications Communications Act (PL 104-104) that says providers of internet services shall not be treated as publishers, may need to be reexamined, Goodlatte said. And operators of social media platforms need to “do a better job explaining how they make decisions to filter content and the rationale for why they do so,” he said.
Company executives said they use a combination of advanced artificial intelligence-based technologies and human operators to monitor and filter content that may violate company rules.
“Our policies do not target particular political beliefs,” Jennifer Downs, director of public policy and government relations at YouTube told the committee. “To determine when videos should be removed, demonetized, or age restricted, we look at the context, including whether content is clearly documentary, educational, or satirical.”
At Facebook, which has hired thousands of fact checkers, “discussing controversial topics or espousing a debated point of view is not at odds with our community standards,” said Monika Bickert, the company’s vice president for global policy told the committee.
Twitter, which has been removing hundreds of thousands of fake accounts and bots operated by Russian troll factories, is making sure legitimate voices can be heard, Nick Pickles, senior strategist at Twitter told the committee.
“Due to technology and process improvements during the past year, we are now removing 214 percent more accounts for violating our spam policies on a year-on-year basis,” Pickles said. “At the same time, the average number of spam reports we received through our reporting flow continued to drop — from an average of approximately 25,000 per day in March, to approximately 17,000 per day in May. We’ve also seen a 10 percent drop in spam reports from search as a result of our recent changes.”
Democrats on the committee said Republicans should be more concerned about President Donald Trump’s comments at the news conference in Helsinki where he backed Russian President Vladimir Putin while challenging U.S. intelligence agency assessments that the Kremlin had interfered in the 2016 election.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the panel, offered a motion that the committee hold a closed door hearing to examine evidence from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s latest indictment in light of Trump’s dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings. But the motion was rejected 10-12 on a party line vote.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the hearing was “motivated by a sense of persecution by Republicans and conservatives, when they have a majority” in Congress, and won the White House. Lofgren cited analysis that showed conservative views have three times more user engagement on social media platforms than liberal views. She said Republicans have not provided any evidence of bias against conservative views on social media platforms.
Nevertheless, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Google’s practice of scraping information from sites like Wikipedia and others and offering it up to users searching for information, instead of just providing links, means that Google and others could be made responsible for content on their platform and should be subject “to litigation under the standards of care that other media are held to.”
Facebook’s Bickert and YouTube’s Downs said that the protection offered to internet and online companies under current law is essential and has enabled their companies and others to thrive. Both of them said that social media companies only enable content created by users to be disseminated through their platforms.