Twitter returned to its role of punching bag Wednesday over suggestions of partisan bias, at a US House hearing grilling CEO Jack Dorsey.
A Senate hearing earlier in the day, which also questioned Facebook‘s Sheryl Sandberg, barely mentioned political censorship, but the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee opened its session with words about bias and ‘shadow banning.’
‘We hope you can help us better understand how Twitter decides when to suspend a user or ban them from the service, and what you do to ensure such decisions are made without undue bias,’ Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who is the committee chairman, said in his opening remarks.
The hearing comes as Silicon Valley faces a reckoning over its scale and influence. Lawmakers and the public have scrutinized the tech industry over its inability to prevent abuse on its platforms, its broad data collection practices, and perceived political bias of its algorithms. Tech companies have long been accused of letting liberal leanings filter into their products, resulting in alleged censorship and suppression.
It’s been a favorite charge leveled against tech by political figures, especially lately. President Donald Trump spent much of last week accusing Google, Facebook and Twitter of political bias. And the high-profile banning last month of Alex Jones, the far-right commentator known for pushing conspiracy theories, by many of technology’s most powerful companies threw fuel on this long-simmering grievance that tech companies are biased against conservative points of view.
Dorsey was quick to address the implication of bias.
‘We don’t consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions. Period,’ he said. ‘Impartiality is our guiding principle.’
When Dorsey answered with a clear ‘no’ to a question by Rep. Joe Barton about whether Twitter discriminates based on political philosophy, the Texas Republican said his denial was ‘hard to stomach.’
‘We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company has discriminated against conservatives, most of whom happen to be Republican,’ he said.
Democrats turned their fire at Republicans for harping on perceived bias.
‘It’s the height of hypocrisy’ for Republicans and President Donald Trump to criticize Twitter for ‘liberal bias’ when the president used the platform everyday to tweet out ‘juvenile’ rants, said Rep. Frank Pallone, the committees ranking Democrat.
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, lashed out at Republican leadership for calling the hearing to investigate so-called shadow banning, a term for hiding certain accounts or content from showing up in search results.
‘That’s the whole reason, supposedly, we’re here… It’s a load of crap,’ he said.
At the Senate’s hearing earlier in the day, only one senator mentioned the possibility of political censorship on the tech giants’ platforms.
‘I’m a little uncomfortable with where the line is, between taking down misleading and fake information and taking down what someone else may consider legitimate information in the marketplace of ideas,’ said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats. ‘I’d hate to see your platforms become political in the sense that you’re censoring one side or the other of any given debate.’
Wednesday’s Senate hearing was focused on foreign influence on social networks, but the second hearing was designed to address transparency and accountability on Twitter specifically.
Last week, Trump tweeted that Google’s search results are ‘RIGGED,’ saying the company is ‘suppressing voices of Conservatives.’
‘I think Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people,’ he told reporters later that day. ‘Google and Twitter and Facebook, they’re really treading on very, very troubled territory, and they have to be careful.’
Then last Tuesday, he tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses every January — but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias. Google denied the accusation, saying the search engine’s homepage did indeed promote Trump’s address in January. (A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which keeps a record of what appeared on web domains at any given time, also backs up Google’s assertion.) Google said it didn’t promote either Trump’s or Obama’s addresses during their first years in office because those speeches aren’t technically considered State of the Union address.
But the accusations of bias against conservatives began long before that. Ahead of the 2016 election, Facebook was accused of suppressing headlines from conservative outlets with its ‘Trending’ news feature. As a result, Facebook retooled the feature several times and eventually ended up shuttering it in June. And when Zuckerberg testified before congress in April, several Republican lawmakers asked him about the social network’s decision to remove content from Diamond and Silk, two pro-Trump commentators with 1.7 million followers on Facebook.
No one has tested the content, speech and harassment guidelines of the big tech platforms like Jones. Initially, the tech giants resisted removing his content. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said he doesn’t feel comfortable with his company being the ‘arbiters of truth.’ He sparked more outrage while defending Jones last month by comparing his content to that of Holocaust deniers. He said that while he disagreed with those kinds of posts, they should be allowed to remain on Facebook because some Holocaust deniers weren’t aware they were spreading disinformation.
Dorsey appeared on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s radio show last month to argue that InfoWars hadn’t violated Twitter’s rules. ‘We’ll enforce if he does,’ Dorsey said at the time. ‘And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.’
Eventually, several Silicon Valley giants — Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Apple, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Vimeo and Spotify — banned Infowars from their platforms. Twitter suspended Jones for a week last month by putting his account in a read-only mode, meaning he could see the tweets of other, but not tweet, retweet or like posts. The tech giants said that they don’t tolerate hate speech and that Infowars violated their community standards and guidelines.
Wednesday’s hearing are only the latest that the tech giants have faced since the 2016 election. The first was last November, when the top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google were called to testify before the Senate and the House over election interference by the Russians. Last April, Zuckerberg himself was called before Congress in the wake of the social network’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal. And in July, the heads of public policy for YouTube, Facebook and Twitter testified over the filtering practices of social networks.