Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. (MICHAEL REYNOLDS / AP)
Under fire from US President Donald Trump and his allies, the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google rebuffed accusations of anti-conservative bias at a Senate hearing on Wednesday and promised to aggressively defend their platforms from being used to sow chaos in next week’s presidential election.
Lawmakers of both parties, eyeing the companies’ tremendous power to disseminate speech and ideas, are looking to challenge their long-enjoyed bedrock legal protections for online speech－the stated topic for the hearing but one quickly overtaken by questions related to the presidential campaign.
With worries over election security growing, senators on the Commerce Committee extracted promises from Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai that their companies will be on guard against meddling by foreign actors or the incitement of violence around the election results.
Testifying via video, the executives said they are taking several steps, including partnerships with news organizations, to distribute accurate information about voting. Dorsey said Twitter was working closely with state election officials.
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Republicans, led by Trump, have accused the social media platforms, without evidence, of deliberately suppressing conservative views. They say that behavior has reached new heights in the contest between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
The laws governing online speech must be updated because the openness and freedom of the internet are under attack.
Roger Wicker, a Republican Senator of the United States
Republican Senator Roger Wicker, the committee’s chairman, said the laws governing online speech must be updated because “the openness and freedom of the internet are under attack”.
Wicker cited the move this month by Facebook and Twitter to limit dissemination of an unverified story from the conservative-leaning New York Post about Biden.
The story, which was not used by other publications, cited unverified emails from Biden’s son Hunter that were reportedly disclosed by Trump’s supporters.
“Twitter’s conduct has by far been the most egregious,” Senator Ted Cruz told Dorsey. Cruz cited Twitter’s limitations on the newspaper story as part of “a pattern of censorship and silencing Americans with whom Twitter disagrees”.
“Who the hell elected you? And put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report?” Cruz asked.
Dorsey told Cruz that he does not believe that Twitter can influence elections because it’s only one source of information. He tried to steer senators away from conventional notions of political bias, noting that “much of the content people see today is determined by algorithms”.
On Tuesday, Facebook stopped accepting any new political advertising. Previously booked political ads will be able to run until the polls close on Nov 3, when all political advertising will temporarily be banned.
Google, which owns YouTube, also is halting political ads after the polls close. Twitter banned all political ads last year.
Democrats focused their criticism mainly on hate speech, misinformation and other content that can incite violence, keep people from voting or spread falsehoods about the coronavirus.
They criticized the tech CEOs for failing to police content, blaming the platforms for playing a role in hate crimes and the rise of white supremacy in the United States.
The CEOs argued the liability shield has helped make the internet what it is today, though Zuckerberg said he believes Congress “should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended”. Dorsey and Pichai urged caution in making any changes.
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Ai Heping in New York contributed to this story.