Tech CEOs defend measures to combat election lies, misinformation

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Facebook and Twitter’s actions around the closely contested election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in Washington. (Bill Clark/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Caught in the crossfire of partisan frustration over how content is monitored on the popular social media sites, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter told the Senate Tuesday about their efforts to combat misinformation in the 2020 election.

Twitter labeled 300,000 tweets for election-related misinformation from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, the company’s CEO Jack Dorsey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But Democrats questioned whether labels on President Donald Trump’s tweets pushing unsupported claims of voter fraud and falsely declaring victory went far enough.

“He uses this megaphone potentially to block a peaceful transition of power,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said at the outset of the hearing that ran more than four hours Tuesday.

“I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” the president tweeted on Nov. 7.

Twitter slapped a label on the all-caps post saying: “Official sources may not have called the race when this was Tweeted.” In the week after the election, while the careful tallying of ballots would eventually show President-elect Joe Biden had won, Trump’s tweets were routinely tagged with similar labels.

“We want to provide context here. That is our goal,” Dorsey told the senators. He explained the labels not only identified potential misinformation but pointed Twitter users to reliable sources on election results, engaging them in a “broader conversation.”

“Many of the labels did change how the algorithms amplify content,” Dorsey later added.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg said Trump declaring premature victory was “unfortunately an eventuality that we planned for.”

To combat election disinformation, Zuckerburg said Facebook partnered with the Associated Press and Reuters to provide accurate election results; took down pages calling for violence; and ran a voter information center at the top of Facebook and Instagram’s pages, helping an estimated 4.5 million American register to vote.

“This was done in a transparent and nonpartisan way,” Zuckerberg said. Facebook also temporarily paused all political ads and stopped recommending civil and political groups, he added.

President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

GOP senators did not respond to Democrats accusing Trump of operating an aggressive disinformation campaign out of the Oval Office.

Republicans instead accused both tech giants of harboring bias against conservatives, censoring their posts while politically progressive users are given “free reign” on the social media sites.

“Your policies are applied in a partisan and selective manner,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz said.

Several lines of questioning turned on Twitter’s censorship of a New York Post article that allegedly tied then-Democratic presidential candidate Biden to his son’s role on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm.

Dorsey explained that Twitter pulled the article, then reversed that decision within 24 hours, because it did not want to be a “distribution point for hacked materials,” referring to the emails the article was based on that allegedly came from a laptop once belonging to Hunter Biden.

“We will make some mistakes,” he said, telling the panel that Twitter handles billions of pieces of content a day.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah claimed without providing data that such mistakes happen “almost entirely on one side of the political aisle.”

Chairman Lindsey Graham focused on whether Facebook and Twitter should not be considered publishers, bringing the companies out from under the federal law that protects them from being sued for what their users post.

Back in June, Trump signed an executive order aimed at revoking Section 302 of the Communications Decency Act, and Graham voiced support Tuesday for revising the law, saying: “Change is gonna come.”

“What I want to try to find out is, if you’re not a newspaper at Twitter or Facebook, then why do you have editorial control over the New York Post?” Graham said.

Reinforcing the position that social-media platforms have begun to operate in the same manner as traditional editorial-content sites, Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, argued Facebook and Twitter should back off censoring.

“We’ve gotta trust people to use their own good judgment, to decide what they choose to believe and not believe, and not try to assume that we’re smart and they’re stupid,” he said.

But Senator Cory Booker called for stronger censorship, specifically for one of Twitter’s most closely watched users: the president.

“Donald Trump is waging an all-out war on the truth and our democratic systems,” the Democratic senator from New Jersey said.

While Trump has spread false information on Twitter, those days may come to an end when President-elect Biden takes office.

Dorsey explained global leaders are given a longer rope on the platform, with tweets that violate terms of service left up behind an interstitial — requiring users to click through to view the post — and cannot be simply retweeted.

“If an account suddenly is not a world leader anymore, that particular policy goes away,” he said.

Dorsey and Zuckerburg also addressed Republicans’ concern that Twitter and Facebook’s workforces are disproportionately left-leaning politically. Both CEOs stressed they can’t ask for potential employees’ party affiliation when interviewing them.

Zuckerburg agreed Facebook needs to intentionally make sure bias doesn’t seep into decision making. But Dorsey repeatedly told senators that many of the content-moderating decisions at Twitter are increasingly made by algorithms.

“A lot of these decisions are not being made by humans anymore,” he said.

Furthermore, the Twitter CEO said, the need to have employees work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted Twitter to look for potential new hires in cities across the country.

“The days of having any one centralized, massive corporate headquarter in any one particular city are certainly over for us,” Dorsey added.

Several Democrats raised alarm over Facebook not disabling former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s account after he called for the beheading of top-disease expert Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Twitter, meanwhile, has permanently suspended Bannon for the postelection calls for violence.

“If someone had multiple offenses like that, we would remove their whole account,” Zuckerberg said, noting the content was taken off Facebook.

Citing an FBI report out Monday that hate crimes reached an all-time high in 2019, Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, asked Facebook what it was doing to counter the trend.

Zuckerberg called monitoring for hate speech and incitement of violence “an issue of the highest severity and one that we are very focused on.

Facebook is taking down 94% of hate speech found on the platform, he added, even before users report the content, up from around 20% in past years.