Capitol Report: Lawmakers grill Facebook, YouTube, Twitter execs over algorithms’ control over public debate


Social media companies continued to defend themselves against charges that their products spread dangerous misinformation, manipulate Americans into spending unhealthy amounts of time online and are biased against conservative viewpoints during a hearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday.

Executives from Facebook Inc.
Alphabet Inc.’s

YouTube and Twitter Inc.

faced tough questions and criticism from senators of both parties, and argued that their companies have invested heavily in recent months and years to cut down on content that fosters extremism and in features that promote “healthy” and “meaningful” engagement with others online.

“In the guise of giving consumers what they want, a lot of our social media platforms use surveillance to identify a person’s hot buttons, then they use algorithms to show that person stuff that pushes that person’s hot buttons,” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican. “You can still find kindness in America, but you have to go offline to do it.”

Read more: Big tech should fear an FTC push against monopoly power, experts say

Kennedy and a fellow Republican, Josh Hawley of Missouri, used the hearing to promote legislation that would strip Section 230 immunity from social media companies that use algorithms that decide what content a user sees based on what content would increase engagement on their platform. Section 230 is a portion of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects online platforms from being sued for content that is posted by third-party users.

Tristan Harris, president of the Center for Humane Technology and a high-profile critic of social media companies’ business models, declined to endorse this strategy, arguing that if social media companies were forced to engage in no editorial oversight of their platforms, content like pornography and extreme speech would likely become even more prominent.

“If the companies took their hands off the steering wheel, they’re still manipulating people’s emotions, in fact the more they take their hand of the steering wheel, the more it raises values-blind engagement,” Harris said. “That means literally the most outrageous stuff, the most child trafficking stuff, the most sexually pornographic stuff would rise to the top, and that would also be a form of manipulation.”

See also: Zuckerberg and Dorsey get a congressional tongue lashing, but does D.C. have more punishment in store?

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, asked representatives of each of the companies to address criticism that its platforms were discriminating against conservative viewpoints under the guise of regulating “misinformation.”

“We welcome diverse perspectives,” said Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter and erstwhile press secretary for former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “Twitter wouldn’t be Twitter if everyone had the same viewpoints.”

Culbertson and representatives from YouTube and Facebook talked about efforts to enhance “due process,” whereby users have the ability to complain that their content was unfairly removed. Alexandra Veitch, director of government affairs and public policy at YouTube, said that during the last quarter of 2020, “we did have 223,000 appeals and 83,000 reinstatements, showing we don’t always get this right, but we certainly want to apply our policies evenly.”

Democrats were focused more on concerns of the vast market power of some social media platforms. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for instance, asked Harris to describe how market power exacerbated the control these platforms have over the public discourse.

“Once you have a dominant platform, it’s very hard for there to be alternative,” he said. “Market concentration means that even if there are alternatives trying to solve any of the problems we’re talking about differently, you’re going to get bought up by the existing platforms. And if you’re a venture capitalist the only way you’re going to fund an existing company is by knowing there’s an exit pathway.”

Klobuchar introduced legislation in February that would vastly increase the budgets of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, while expanding their powers to block mergers or force existing monopolies to unwind.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a bipartisan push to reform the U.S. antitrust regime has been gaining steam, with Republicans particularly willing to focus on issues that would impact big tech companies. Both Facebook and Google are already facing lawsuits brought by federal and state enforcers that accuse them of engaging in illegal, anti-competitive practices. In the case of Facebook, the FTC and state attorneys general are asking courts to force the company to divest of the popular Instagram and Whatsapp applications.

The Biden administration appears eager to follow these suits with stricter action against tech giants, after the president nominated for a spot on the FTC Columbia Law School professor Lina Khan, who came to prominence in in 2017 when she penned a Yale Law Journal article called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” about how existing antitrust law is ill-equipped to rein in the power of big tech.

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