Congress Grills Social Media Companies
WASHINGTON— The U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on July 17 to take testimony from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter on whether social media giants are filtering content for political reasons.
Republicans on the judiciary committee in particular raised concerns about social media companies being overly biased against conservative websites.
The representatives of the three social media companies declined to attend a previous hearing held in April on the same topic.
The hearing in April featured popular video bloggers Diamond and Silk. The conservative pro-Trump sisters Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson testified that Facebook censored their content. Facebook had told the sisters that they were “unsafe to the community.”
Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, apologized during the July 17 hearing for mishandling the case of Diamond and Silk.
“We understand their frustrations over some past communications with our team, and we recognize that we badly mishandled their concerns,” Bickert said. “We apologized to them at the time, and I’d like to extend my own personal apology to them again today.”
She said Facebook has learned from its past mistakes. The company hired an outside adviser, former Republican Senator Jon Kyl, to prevent potential bias against conservative opinions, she added.
In April 2018, Facebook announced the launch of an appeals process that enables people to contest the decisions made by the social media platform.
The social media representatives received tough questions from the committee members about Russia’s use of social media platforms to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
Witnesses from the social media giants said they have suspended accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. Bickert also said Facebook took actions to improve transparency around ads with political content. Advertisers now need to verify their identity and location, she explained.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) criticized witnesses for failing to answer his question on interference from other countries including China and North Korea.
He said Russian interference in presidential elections is an important issue, but it has been happening for decades.
“I want to thank my colleagues across the aisle for their concerns about Russian interference with our elections because it’s been going on for 70 years,” he said, claiming that Russians helped Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter win the elections.
He asked the representatives of all three social media platforms the same question, “Did you ever find any indication of use of your platform utilized by the Chinese, North Korea or any other foreign country or intelligence or agency of that country?”
When witnesses were unable to answer, he said, “You sure seemed anxious to answer the Democrats’ questions about Russia influence and you don’t really know of all the groups that inappropriately used your platform. You don’t know which were Russia and which were other foreign entities?”
Some committee members also questioned if the platforms should be held as liable as traditional media outlets. Gohmert said social media platforms “should be just as liable as Fox News and Sinclair.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) raised a human rights issue in Vietnam during the hearing. He questioned whether Facebook is collaborating with Communist regimes to censor online dissent. He referred to an Asia Times article published on June 2, claiming that Facebook obliged ruling Communist Party requests in Vietnam to block democracy and human rights-related content.
According to the Asia Times, the communist party had threatened Facebook that it would ask local firms to stop advertising on the platform, the firm’s major revenue stream.
Bickert admitted that Facebook blocked contents locally when they were alleged to violate the country’s law.
Censoring Conservative Voices
Conservatives and Republicans have long criticized Facebook and other social media platforms for censoring conservative viewpoints. In January, Twitter employees admitted the company censored conservatives and “shadow banned” users who express their right-wing views, an undercover video from Project Veritas found.
A Christian gospel group from Indianapolis was one of the latest to be censored by Facebook. The music group, Zion’s Joy, posted last month their new song “What Would Heaven Look Like” on the social media’s platform. But after they decided to “boost” the video by paying Facebook to promote it, the video was blocked.
Earlier this month, Facebook notified Texas newspaper the Liberty County Vindicator that it was promoting hate speech after it posted excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. Facebook later apologized for the mistake.
At the start of the hearing, Rep. Jaime Raskin (D-Md.) rebuked Republicans for pushing a “conspiracy theory about anti-conservative bias.”
“There is no evidence to back this specious claim that social media companies intentionally target conservative content for disfavored treatment because of their political ideology,” he said in a prepared statement.
Raskin also said social media companies had the right to censor conservative voices, “just like Sinclair and Fox News have a clear ideological bent and clearly promote their own form of censorship on their own media platforms.”