On Wednesday, the House Committee on Homeland Security drilled witnesses from social media companies. Though the hearing’s main focus was the companies’ efforts to combat terrorist content, misinformation, and hate speech, representatives took the opportunity to attack the companies for alleged censorship and bias. Alongside spokespeople from Google, Facebook, and Twitter was Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU and John Marshall Harlan II, Professor of Law at New York Law School.
Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) opened the hearing by placing it in the context of the New Zealand massacre in February 2019, in which a white supremacist opened fire on a crowded mosque, killing 51 and injuring 49 more. Thompson recalled Facebook’s failure to take down the livestreamed footage of the attack proactively, only acting when they were informed of its existence by authorities over an hour later. Other legislators were similarly dissatisfied with Facebook and the other companies’ apparent inability to act with efficiency and rigor against terrorist content. Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), presenting to the witnesses a public Facebook group for members of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, claimed in an impassioned critique that “we have every right to feel as if you are not taking this seriously. And by ‘we’ I do not mean Congress. I mean the American people.”
Other representatives expressed concern about foreign interference in U.S. elections. Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) made reference to a doctored video of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with slowed-down audio that makes her appear to drunkenly slur her words. Monica Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, described various techniques used by Facebook to counter such content, including reducing its distribution and flagging it as doctored or false. Derek Slater, Google’s Global Director of Information Policy, Government Affairs, and Public Policy, similarly commented that the video was removed from YouTube after it was found to be doctored.
Republican representatives were quick to highlight allegations of bias and censorship against Google and other companies. Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), for instance, declared that “Google and YouTube are developing quite a poor reputation in this nation.” Several representatives made direct reference to the recent release of a video by Project Veritas in which Jen Gennai, Google’s Head of Responsible Innovation, appears to indicate that political biases influence company policy. Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) quoted the video in his opening statement and stated his fear that social media companies are engaging in politically motivated censorship. Slater was quick to respond, saying that “no [Google] employee can alter policy based on ideology.” While Rogers also pointed out that the video was removed from YouTube, implying censorship by Google, various commentators have pointed out that the non-consensual recording violated YouTube’s community standards.
For both Republicans and Democrats at the hearing, the company representatives’ answers were clearly less than satisfying. The hearing seemed build on recent calls to regulate the companies by people including President Donald Trump, who has often been at odds with social media moguls. Most recently, Trump has threatened legal action against Twitter, claiming that “these people [social media company executives] are all Democrats. It’s totally biased toward Democrats.” On the Democratic front, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is also a frontrunner in the presidential primary, has repeatedly expressed her desire to “break up big tech.” Additionally, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has introduced legislation that would allow the government to remove legal protections from social media companies who are deemed to have acted in a politically biased manner.
Strossen, speaking with The American Spectator, argued that such regulation would not protect free speech, but rather impinge on it further. Primarily, she noted that the inherent subjectivity of concepts such as hate speech and misinformation makes it impossible for regulation to be both truly neutral and politically unbiased. She hearkened back to the Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949 and struck down by the Reagan administration in 1987. Under the doctrine, radio broadcasters were compelled to present issues in a fair and balanced manner, somewhat similarly to Hawley’s proposal for social media. Despite apparently good intentions, both Republicans and Democratic administrations abused it, threatening to revoke broadcasting licenses from stations that were ideologically opposed to their own views under unsubstantiated accusations of unfair coverage.
Strossen stressed the importance of encouraging social media companies to address hate speech and misinformation issues through the use of partnerships and facilitation of technological development, rather than regulatory coercion. She further highlighted the importance of positive speech as opposed to censorship as a way to address misinformation. For Strossen, it would be “a fool’s errand to try to satisfy everybody” who complained of censorship by social media. While the policies and behavior of social media companies are by no means perfect, forcing them to adhere to a subjective concept of fairness would threaten their freedom of association.