Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs are back in Congress, facing questions on how social media promotes extremism and misinformation

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies remotely before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten

Lawmakers are interrogating the chief executive officers of Google, Facebook and Twitter Thursday on the role their companies have played in promoting extremism and spreading misinformation.

It’s not the first time Google’s Sundar Pichai, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey have testified. But the focus on misinformation and extremism is newly relevant after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, which exploded out of a vortex of false claims spread by lawmakers and right-wing media figures that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged against former President Donald Trump.

The hearing is taking place via video call, led by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They want to pin down the CEOs on how their companies helped foster the environment that led to the insurrection, and also grill them on how anti-vaccine groups and covid-19 skeptics have used social media to push medical misinformation during the pandemic, according to people familiar with the lawmakers’ preparations for the hearing.

The politicians hope to press the companies on the steps they’re taking to address the offline harms of the falsehoods that fester on their platforms.

“My main question to them is what are you going to do to prevent disinformation from spreading and leading to racial tensions, attacks on the Capitol and conspiracy theories like the ones that are spread about the vaccine,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chair of the committee. “What are you going to do to prevent these real-life consequences?”

Republicans on the panel will have a different set of goals. More than half of the representatives on the two subcommittees organizing the hearing voted against certifying the 2020 election, citing baseless claims about election fraud. Those politicians are likely to accuse the CEOs of censoring conservative viewpoints and oppose Democrats’ demands for stricter rules about policing hate and violence on the platforms. Several lawmakers on the committee have tweeted the phrase #StopTheSteal or otherwise supported Trump’s efforts to undermine the election results on social media.

The companies have taken steps in the last year to reduce lies and conspiracy theories on their platforms. Facebook and Twitter both removed thousands of groups and accounts promoting baseless conspiracy theories after harboring them for years. And all three platforms suspended Trump in the days after the Capitol riots, a major break from their long-held position that political leaders are granted a newsworthiness exception.

Democrats and progressives want them to go further, however. And conservatives are pushing back at the actions they’ve already taken.

House lawmakers have pushed for a hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google since the deadly Jan. 6 attacks at the U.S. Capitol. Democrats in the House said these websites have allowed misinformation to spread with “real-life, grim consequences for public health and safety,” alluding to Jan. 6.

Ahead of the hearing, advocacy groups including Color of Change, Avaaz, Coalition for a Safer Web and the Anti-Defamation League have been privately talking to lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and their staffs about their concerns about disinformation and extremism on social media.

Lawmakers will likely bring up the validity of Section 230, known as the law that “created the internet.” Pallone said this hearing will allow lawmakers to consider potential legislative action to rein in the tech giants, including revisiting Section 230, a decades-old internet law that shields tech companies from lawsuits related to the content people post on their platforms. They could also bolster the resources of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal government’s top technology watchdog.

 

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