On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee held what is destined to go down as one of the dumbest hearings in US history. In order to explore potential political bias on social media platforms, conservative commentators Diamond and Silk were invited to testify under oath. The proceedings should have never happened, but here we are.
For over two hours, the committee listened to testimony from experts and non-experts about algorithmic manipulation on social networks. More than anything, we heard some variation on the story, “Facebook censored me because I am a ‘deplorable’/Christian/anti-abortion person.” While some interesting topics were raised, and the legal guidelines for social networks were clarified, it seems safe to say that few of the attendees learned anything. As with all things Facebook, this was way more complicated than it had to be.
For the uninitiated, Diamond and Silk are sisters who support Donald Trump, post MAGA video blogs online, and occasionally monologue on Fox News while Tucker Carlson smirks in the corner. They were hoisted into the controversy surrounding Facebook following their accusations that the social network was penalizing their content for political purposes. Their case became a main point of questioning from conservative lawmakers when Mark Zuckerberg appeared at congressional hearings earlier this month. Zuckerberg admitted that at one point Facebook made an “enforcement error and we have already gotten in touch with them to reverse it.” The claim that there is evidence the channel was discriminated against by Facebook has been thoroughly debunked.
The hearings today were officially about “Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms,” but in reality, it was just a piece of political theater in which conservative lawmakers put forward anecdotal evidence of some incidents in which users felt they were being discriminated against because Facebook is a liberal machine that in no way affected the election of Donald Trump. Diamond and Silk were more than happy to say that’s true; experts on the witness panel repeatedly said there was no evidence to support such a claim.
The whole show was genuinely bizarre, with conservatives arguing that Facebook is now a public square and should be regulated to follow First Amendment protections. The ideological role reversal continued with Democratic lawmakers reminding everyone that it’s unconstitutional to require private companies to follow First Amendment guidelines. At one point, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert showed just how concerned he was for these two patriot pundits when he called them “Gold and Silk.” He said that he’s “not for more government regulation” but in this case, he’s “working on laws” to hold Facebook liable for censoring speech.
Then something interesting happened. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee began her opportunity to interview the witnesses by stating that she doesn’t view this hearing as particularly important but affirmed her belief that Diamond and Silk have the same right to freedom of speech as everyone else. Then Lee asked the two if they’d ever received payment from the Trump campaign. The question was in reference to a $1,274.94 payment listed in the campaign’s amended FEC filings, as Gizmodo was first to point out. The already contentious Q&A turned hostile as the two raised their voices over questions and Diamond (her legal name is Lynette Hardaway) emphatically stated, “We have never been paid by the Trump campaign!” The question was asked several times with variations on the dollar figure, and each time the answer was no.
Later, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries returned to the line of questioning. He presented FEC filings and asked if the two were aware that they took an oath to tell the truth under penalty of perjury. They said they were. He asked if they were familiar with the report that says they were paid, $1,274.94 by the Trump campaign. Silk (Rochelle Richardson) replied, “We are familiar with that particular line. We can see that you do look at fake news.”
Jeffries clarified that this is a federal document filed by the Trump campaign, and asked the witnesses to clarify who is lying in this situation. Diamond and Silk consulted their prepared remarks and explained that they were invited to join the Women for Trump tour in 2016. They said they paid for plane tickets from New York to Ohio, and Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, proceeded to get them reimbursed for their travel. And well, in their eyes that’s not a payment.
Whether any of that would amount to perjury seems unlikely. But we do finally have an on-the-record explanation for that previously disclosed payment, and we also have to ask if Diamond and Silk may have left anything else out of their testimony that didn’t get full clarification. Unlike with Zuckerberg, we can’t imagine the YouTube stars have an army of corporate lawyers to prep them with rigorous talking points beforehand.
While that question was presumably cleared up, others were raised by Diamond and Silk’s official written testimony. They disputed numerous claims made by Facebook in recent weeks and presented anecdotal evidence that they’d been targeted for a “shadow ban.” One of the primary points of contention was that Facebook claimed it was in direct contact with them; Diamond and Silk said that wasn’t true when the comment was made. We’ve asked Facebook if it disputes any aspect of Diamond and Silk’s testimony but the company didn’t provide an answer.
It’s easy to blame the total pointlessness of the hearings today on a group of political grifters who are either trying to increase their star power or reinforce the nonsensical idea that conservatives are marginalized. But let me suggest you just blame Facebook for all this. Facebook was invited to the hearing and could have cleared some things up right away, it decided not to show up.
In response to our questions about the hearing, a Facebook spokesperson only added to the company’s infuriating obfuscation by sending us this quote from Zuckerberg’s testimony: “I’m very committed to making sure that Facebook is a platform for all ideas. That’s a very important founding principle of what we do. We’re proud of the discourse and the different ideas that people can share on the service, and that is something that as long as I’m running the company I’m going to be committed to making sure is the case.”
Facebook remains tight-lipped on what happened with Diamond and Silk, and in general, it’s terrible at explaining how its platform works. When it does explain the platform, it buries it in long texts filled with platitudes about it being a place for everyone. It’s not. It’s a place for whomever Facebook decides it wants to be there. It says you control the content you see. You don’t. There’s no indication that it manipulates what shows up in the feed for political purposes, but it does use algorithms to surface what will best pump-up addictive engagement and advertising dollars.
Congress is filled with dumbass turds rambling on about things they don’t understand. If Diamond and Silk weren’t running their particular racket, someone else would. But there’s only one Facebook, and the confusion it spreads has us all running around arguing about a bunch of bullshit.