In the end, the Section 230 hearing didn’t have much to do with Section 230.
CEOs from two of the biggest companies in the world (and Twitter) testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday in a hearing that was billed as a deliberation over Section 230. It ended up being more about castigating social media platforms both for censoring voices too much and for not censoring them enough.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before an almost entirely virtual panel of legislators, none of whom seemed particularly thrilled with the CEOs’ work. But their complaints differed depending on their political party. Republicans generally used the hearing to scold the companies for censoring conservative voices to the extent that they may influence the outcome of the election in Biden’s favor. Democrats objected to having a hearing at all and asked the CEOs what they were doing to suppress violent extremism and election interference on their platforms.
If nothing else, the hearings showed a bipartisan dislike and mistrust of social media platforms and a desire to do something about them.
The hearing was titled “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” — that bad behavior being, to its vocal conservative opponents, social media platforms censoring political viewpoints with which they disagree. But the law is much bigger than that. Section 230 allows websites to host content from users without being liable for it. For instance, you can sue a Twitter user for a defamatory tweet, but you can’t sue Twitter itself. This is what enables these sites to exist in the first place. Without immunity from lawsuits over third-party content, platforms wouldn’t allow it at all.
The law also allows platforms to moderate user content as they see fit without losing that immunity, a fact that has become a major sticking point for conservatives who feel that platforms are unfairly censoring them. While Attorney General Bill Barr and several Republican legislators want to change Section 230 to require websites to be “politically neutral” in moderation decisions, President Trump has called for an outright repeal of the law. In fact, the president repeated that demand while Wednesday’s hearing was still in progress:
The USA doesn’t have Freedom of the Press, we have Suppression of the Story, or just plain Fake News. So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2020
Democrats have their own issues with Section 230 and Big Tech in general. But in the hearing, those concerns took a back seat to their grievances against its timing and the pro-Trump messages they believed committee Republicans were using it to convey.
Most Republicans barely mentioned Section 230 and instead focused on social media moderation and a perceived silencing of conservative voices, the oft-noted examples of such being President Trump’s fact-checked tweets and the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden, which Twitter and Facebook initially limited the spread of. There were also several questions about the political ideologies of employees and people who make moderation decisions, with the implication being that very few of them are conservative.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) were especially emphatic about these points. Cruz, a frequent critic of Section 230, even advertised his appearance at the hearing on Twitter and Facebook the night before, calling it a “Free Speech Showdown,” complete with custom art that resembled a poster for a boxing match. Cruz opened his questions by saying the CEOs testifying before him “collectively pose the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.” His use of his time didn’t really get better from there.
“Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic Super PAC?” Cruz demanded. Dorsey responded that he is not in charge of those things. Cruz then retweeted several news articles containing his quote as well as posting his own video of it, indicating that his question to Dorsey was meant more for political theater than anything else.
Johnson tried to nail the CEOs down on how many of their employees are liberal and how many are conservative. In response, Dorsey said his company doesn’t keep track of employees’ politics, Pichai said he believed his employees have many different viewpoints, and Zuckerberg said he didn’t know for sure but assumes Facebook skews liberal — which was the only answer Johnson seemed to believe.
Several Republicans also pointed out that Twitter let untrue or violent tweets from other world leaders stay up while punishing Trump for his tweets, even though, as Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said, they are “true.” One example was a series of tweets from Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that seemed to promote violence against Israel, which are still on the platform.
“We did not find those to violate our terms of service because we consider them sabre-rattling, which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries,” Dorsey said. “Speech against our own people or a country’s own citizens, we believe, is different and can cause more immediate harm.”
Some Democrats used their time to criticize the timing and subject of the hearing, calling it part of a coordinated Republican effort to bully platforms into keeping conservative-leaning content up, even if it violates their policies, as well as to amplify the New York Post’s story to try to influence the outcome of the election. Others brought up how social media platforms have facilitated violent extremist groups to meet and organize and foreign powers to influence the elections. They asked the CEOs what they plan to do to prevent or squelch this content on their respective platforms as the election approaches, and whether they would pledge to stop or prevent election interference on their platforms. Dorsey, Pichai, and Zuckerberg all pledged to do so.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that Facebook makes more money when people spend more time on it, and divisive political content has been shown to contribute to that engagement.
“Does that bother you, what it’s done to our politics?” she asked.
Zuckerberg said the platform is designed to show users the content that’s most important to them.
“Most of the content on the systems is not political, it’s things like making sure you can see when your cousin had her baby,” he said.
“That’s not what I’m talking about, the cousins and the babies here,” Klobuchar said. “I’m talking about conspiracy theories … I think it’s been corrosive.”
But some senators actually took the time to ask the CEOs seemingly genuine questions about their moderation policies and algorithms as well as how Section 230 could be re-written to provide more clarity to users. Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) asked if giving Section 230’s “otherwise objectionable” rule for the type of content platforms are allowed to moderate more specific guidelines would be a solution. Zuckerberg noted that having to spell out which content is objectionable and which is not would limit their ability to moderate bullying or harassment. Dorsey and Zuckerberg said multiple times during the hearing that they would be open to increased transparency on their platforms with regard to moderation decisions.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who proposed a bipartisan bill about Section 230, said he hoped to have “good faith” discussion about the law after the election. A future hearing about Section 230 is certainly possible regardless of the election’s outcome, as Trump’s feelings are well-known and Biden has said he is in favor of revoking the law — a stance that a campaign official told Recode hasn’t changed.
The co-author of Section 230, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is not a member of the Commerce Committee and so wasn’t at the hearing. But he wasn’t quiet about it, issuing a statement along the lines of many Democrats’ complaints.
“After watching the hearing today, I don’t believe my Republican colleagues have read the First Amendment, let alone Section 230,” Wyden said. “Their obsession with forcing private companies to print misinformation, lies and hate speech is unconstitutional and lays bare how little this is about Section 230 and how much it is a transparent attempt to work the refs a week before the election.”
Wyden added, “Today’s sad spectacle shows how far this body is from having a rational debate about how to make the internet a better place.”
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.