The CEOs of America’s biggest technology companies faced a grilling on Thursday from Congress about the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, as protesters outside the hearing denounced the platforms for playing a role in fuelling the violence.
The marathon, six-hour hearing saw the three most powerful men in tech - Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter – testify before two committees of the House of Representatives on social media's role in promoting extremism and misinformation.
The session took place against a backdrop of protests, with demonstrators gathering outside the Capitol building ahead of the hearing, portraying the tech executives as the violent insurrectionists whose images went viral in the days after the January6th riots. One cutout erected on the grounds showed Mr Zuckerberg as the “QAnon Shaman”, a part-time actor with a horned furry hat who participated in the riot.
“The platforms’ inability to deal with the violence, hate and disinformation they promote on their platforms shows that these companies are failing to regulate themselves,” said Emma Ruby-Sachs, the executive director of SumofUs, the human rights organisation behind the protests. “After the past five years of manipulation, data harvesting and surveillance, the time has come to rein in big tech.”
Lawmakers opened the hearing with video testimonies, criticising the platforms for their role in the January 6th violence, as well as in the spread of medical misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine.
“You failed to meaningfully change after your platform has played a role in fomenting insurrection and abetting the spread of the virus and trampling American civil liberties,” said the Democratic representative Frank Pallone, the chair of the energy and commerce committee. “Your business model itself has become the problem and the time for self-regulation is over. It’s time we legislate to hold you accountable,” he added.
“You’re not passive bystanders – you are not non-profits or religious organisations that are trying to do a good job for humanity – you’re making money,” Mr Pallone later said. “The point we’re trying to make today is that when you spread misinformation, when extremists are actively promoted and amplified, you do it because you make more money.”
"The witnesses here today have demonstrated time and time again, that self-regulation has not worked," echoed Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic representative from Illinois. "They must be held accountable for allowing disinformation and misinformation to spread."
Hate speech impact
Special attention was paid to how hate speech disproportionately impacts minority communities including the LGBTQ+ community, Black Americans, Asian Americans, and Spanish-speakers.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers quickly turned to the topic of “cancel culture” and perceived, but unproven, bias against conservatives on social media.
In his opening statement, Facebook’s Zuckerberg, argued that the tech companies should not be making the decisions around what is allowed online, and stressed Facebook’s efforts to combat misinformation and its spread of vaccine information.
Google’s Pichai, too, sought to highlight his company’s role in connecting users with vaccine information and other Covid-19 resources.
Thursday’s session is the latest in a record number of hearings for the big technology players in the past year, as executives have repeatedly been called to the Hill to testify on antitrust issues, misinformation and hate speech.
The hearing, which was titled Disinformation nation: social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation, was held by the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee.
Lawmakers repeatedly pressed the CEOs on how their platforms were tackling hate speech and misinformation more widely.
The Democratic representative Doris Matsui, of California, raised the issue of anti-Asian hate speech and directly asked Mr Dorsey and Mr Zuckerberg what they are doing to address it. She also asked why they took so long to remove racist hashtags that promoted blame for the coronavirus pandemic on Asian Americans, citing the recent attack on Asian women in Atlanta as a consequence of these policies.
“The issues we are discussing here are not abstract,” she said. “They have real world consequences and implications that are too often measured in human lives.”
She also cited a study that showed a substantial rise in hate speech the week after Donald Trump first used the term "China flu" in a tweet.
‘Obligation over free speech’
Mr Dorsey countered by saying he will not ban the racist hashtags outright because “a lot of these hashtags contain counter speech”, or posts refuting the racism the hashtags initiated. Mr Zuckerberg similarly said that hate speech policies at Facebook are “nuanced” and that they have an obligation to protect free speech.
Hate crimes and hate speech against Asian Americans has been on the rise. Tony Cardenas of California has asked Zuckerberg how the company addresses the major problem of misinformation that targets Latino users, noting that studies have shown Facebook catches less false content in Spanish than in English.
Mr Zuckerberg responded that Facebook has an international factchecking programme with workers in more than 80 countries speaking “a bunch of languages” including Spanish. He also said Facebook translates accurate information about Covid-19 vaccines and other issues from English into a number of languages.
Mr Cardenas noted the example of his Spanish-speaking mother-in-law saying she did not want to get a vaccine because she heard on social media it would place a microchip in her arm.
“For God’s sake, that to me is unbelievable, that she got that information on social media platforms,” he said. “Clearly Spanish language misinformation is an issue.”
The hearing marked the latest in a long line of panels on misinformation and hate speech. And while in some ways it felt as if a lot of ground was covered during the six-hour questioning, it also remained unclear what concrete action will come out of it.
Proposed legislation ranged from instating medical experts at platforms to make health content decisions, to providing services for veterans targeted by misinformation and a third-party board monitoring viral misinformation, but none were finalized or made concrete.
Mr Zuckerberg frequently spoke in favour of reforming Section 230, a law that exempts platforms from legal responsibility for what is posted by users. Meanwhile, Mr Dorsey put forward his plan of allowing for an open protocol shared by tech platforms to create more transparency surrounding how content is moderated. He also said that Twitter would like to open its moderation operations up to outside researchers for review.
During the interrogation, Mr Dorsey was the only one of the three executives who accepted any form of responsibility for the insurrection on January 6th. The other two refused to answer questions on the matter. Activists condemned the CEOs’ inability to take responsibility.
“Mr Zuckerberg and the other tech CEOs couldn’t even muster a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the simple question of whether they’re responsible for how their platforms amplified disinformation that fuelled the insurrection,” said Fadi Quran, the campaign director at Avaaz and member of activism group the Real Facebook Oversight Board. “They won’t take responsibility. There’s little hope that they’ll do what it takes to protect Americans from the toxic lies and conspiracies that pollute their platforms.”
No follow-up hearings on this particular subject were mentioned, but the House financial services committee said in an antitrust hearing this year that there would be more to come – so it’s likely the executives will be back in Washington soon. – Guardian