Another tech hearing in Congress becomes a circus sideshow

One of the notable things about the last Congressional hearing with executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter this summer—the final hearing in a fifteen-month-long investigation by the House Committee on Antitrust—was how intelligent most of the questioning was. But a separate hearing on Wednesday with Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google, was an unfortunate return to the kind of circus act we’ve grown used to on these subjects: a hearing about an important topic that degenerated into grandstanding by politicians who either don’t understand the issues, or were happy to pretend in order to get video clips of themselves grilling a trio of billionaires. All of which isn’t that surprising, given that the impetus for the hearing was the alleged “censorship” by Twitter and Facebook of a New York Post story, a story involving dubious claims about Joe Biden’s son that various conservative players tried desperately to turn into a Clinton-emails-style election scandal.

The showboating started before the actual testimony got under way, with a series of promotional tweets from Sen. Ted Cruz that made the hearing seem like a wrestling match. Cruz wasted no time trying to amp up the rhetoric inside the hearing itself, asking 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?” He went on to accuse the company of being “a Democratic super PAC, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs,” and after the hearing was finished, he accused Dorsey of lying under oath for saying that Twitter users were now free to post links to the Post story, which Cruz said he was unable to do. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, meanwhile, spent her time at the hearing asking Pichai whether a software engineer who had criticized Blackburn in the past still had a job (the Google executive said he didn’t know).

Another strain of questioning focused on Twitter’s alleged “censorship” of Trump’s tweets, which seemed to be a blanket term that included everything from putting a warning label on a tweet with misinformation to the company’s pre-election policy of encouraging users to read news stories before tweeting links to them. Why did Twitter label Trump’s tweets, a number of members asked, but leave up tweets by the Ayatollah Khamenei in which the Iranian cleric threatened to destroy Israel? Or a tweet from a Chinese politician accusing the US of causing the coronavirus pandemic? About ninety-five percent of the hearing was theater, said Brian Fung of CNN. “Lawmakers are dug in, the companies have their talking points, and the public enjoys seeing CEOs squirm under the spotlight. That’s pretty much it. Congress has always been theater, so we’re in pretty much the same place we were a year ago.”

Related: At Voters’ Service

“There’s simply no reason to have this hearing just prior to the election, except that it may intimidate the platforms, who have shown themselves to be vulnerable to political blunt force in the past,” Sen. Brian Schatz said on Twitter about the hearing. “This is bullying, and it’s for electoral purposes,” he added in a video message. “I’ll be glad to participate in good faith bipartisan hearings on these issues when the election is over. This is not that.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, accused Republicans of politicizing “what should actually not be a partisan topic,” and Sen. Tammy Duckworth said members of Congress were “placing the selfish interests of Donald Trump ahead of the health of our democracy.” Sen. Mark Warner released a statement saying he was saddened by the fact that some members “have joined in the Trump Administration’s cynical and concerted effort to bully platforms.”

In their opening statements, the leaders of Twitter and Google both warned Congress of the dangers of removing the protections of Section 230, which a number of experts have pointed out would likely make their moderation even more heavy-handed rather than less. Zuckerberg, however, seemed to meet the members of the committee halfway by agreeing that “Congress should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.” Why would he do this? As more than one industry observer pointed out, the best way to protect Facebook’s dominance over social networking is to encourage the development of regulations that only it and a handful of other multibillion-dollar companies are able to afford or manage. “Do you want to give up on competition goals in favor of content moderation goals? Then you should definitely endorse whatever CDA 230 reform Facebook does,” said Daphne Keller, the director of platform regulation at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Here’s more on the tech giants:

  • Cow them: Danielle Citron, a professor of law at Boston University and vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, and Spencer Overton, a professor of law at George Washington University and president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, argue that despite the grandstanding at the tech hearings, “the real threat to American democracy is not censorship of conservative perspectives on social networks, but coordinated disinformation campaigns, both domestic and foreign, that sow division, confusion, and distrust.” Senate Republicans “don’t want answers from the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, they want to cow them,” the authors add.
  • Echo chamber: A new study from Media Matters looked at Facebook pages that regularly post about American political news and found that right-leaning pages outperformed left-leaning pages. “Right-leaning pages consistently earned more average weekly interactions than left-leaning pages, while both types of pages earned similar engagement rates—a measure of performance that accounts for interactions,” the study found. A separate study found that Facebook creates an echo chamber for news consumption, and that conservative users are more likely to become polarized than left-leaning users. CJR is talking about this study all this week with researchers Steven Johnson and Brent Kitchens on our Galley discussion platform.
  • Death of local: Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, released a report in advance of Wednesday’s hearing that argues the anti-competitive and monopolistic activities of the major tech platforms have led to the death of local journalism. “News media, just like other media, are going through a transformation to the digital age,” Cantwell told the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. “In that transformation, it drastically changed the price of advertising. Local news is trying to adjust to that (and) while they’re making this transition into very disruptive, hard economic times, you also have unfair practices by a concentration of power.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, revealed on Wednesday that he is the anonymous author who wrote a New York Times op-ed and a book detailing his misgivings about the Trump administration. Taylor said he understood why some criticized his decision to remain anonymous, but that he chose to do so because it “forced the President to answer them directly on their merits” rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks. White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Taylor was a low-level, disgruntled former staffer who “is a liar and a coward,” and that he was fired for incompetence. Media watchers, meanwhile, noted that he lied twice when asked on CNN whether he was Anonymous.
  • City Pages, the free weekly newspaper that chronicled Twin Cities culture and politics for forty-one years, will stop publishing and close immediately, owner Star Tribune Media announced Wednesday. The company said it could no longer sustain City Pages after the coronavirus outbreak forced closings and downsizing of the events, nightclubs, bars and restaurants that were its chief advertisers. Thirty people are expected to lose their jobs, and Minneapolis-St. Paul will join the growing list of US cities that no longer have an alternative weekly newspaper.
  • A regulatory firewall intended to protect the government-funded Voice of America and its affiliated newsrooms from political interference has been swept aside by the chief executive of the federal agency, a Trump appointee, according to a report from NPR’s David Folkenflik. Michael Pack, who took over leadership of the US Agency for Global Media in June, says he acted to eliminate policies that were “harmful to the agency and the U.S. national interest.” Pack, who dismissed the heads of all the agency’s broadcasters when he took office in June, argued that the rules had interfered with his mandate “to support the foreign policy of the United States.”
  • Audio giant Spotify came under fire after podcast host Joe Rogan welcomed notorious disinformation peddler Alex Jones of Infowars onto his program, allowing Jones to spread conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden’s connections to Ukraine and how vaccines can allegedly give people polio. Spotify recently signed Rogan to a syndication deal that is estimated to be worth about $100 million. According to BuzzFeed, an internal email told Spotify executives to defend having Jones on the program by saying “it’s important to have diverse voices and points of view on our platform.” Spotify removed Jones’ own podcast from its platform in 2018.
  • A group of digital news outlets in India have agreed to form a collective called the Digipub News India Foundation, which they say will promote best practices in the industry and hold its members to “the highest standards in journalism,” according to a news release. The group said its creation was necessary because the “pursuits and interests of legacy media may not always be the same as that of digital media—especially in regards to regulation, business models, technology and structures.”
  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes about how Facebook seems happy to tip the scales in favor of conservative news outlets like Breitbart and Ben Shapiro’s page, while down-ranking news sites like Courier Newsroom, a network of local sites that is funded by a progressive political entity called Acronym, and the left-leaning investigative magazine Mother Jones. Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones reported last week that Facebook took specific steps to suppress her organization’s journalism. “Average traffic from Facebook to our content decreased 37 percent,” after algorithm changes that Zuckerberg signed off on in 2018, she wrote.
  • TikTok announced on Wednesday that it is expanding the resources provided in its in-app election guide in the US, to include direct access to sites that help users get information about polling locations, and those that help people having voting difficulties, according to a report by TechCrunch. The company also said it’s working with the Associated Press to provide access to an interactive map that will show live results for both federal and state elections, as well as ballot initiatives. This map will be updated with live results starting on Election Day, the company said.
  • Nieman Journalism Lab reports that City University of New York has revamped its Journalism Creators Program and made it one hundred days long (down from four months) and fully remote. The program is supported by a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project as well as scholarship funding from media companies such as Substack, LION Publishers, and Media Lab Bayern. The cost of the program is now $4,000 per student, down from over $10,000 for out-of-state participants.

ICYMI: In defense of the newspaper endorsement

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.