As the U.S. copes with an unprecedented pandemic and national reckoning of racism, policymakers are scrutinizing social media’s role in spreading disinformation. On Wednesday, a House joint committee met with experts in law, computer science, and civil rights to discuss how misinformation can be combated on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Though the hearing was full of scorching critiques of social media executives as a group, the attending lawmakers’ most ferocious ire was directed at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose disregard for user privacy directly led to some very bad shit in 2016. Though a lot of time was spent discussing the ins and outs of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, participants also had some space to put big tech under fire for their lackadaisical response to fake covid-19 news, white supremacists, and Russian troll farms. As the tenor of the hearing indicates, key policymakers of both parties are beginning to give more urgent attention to proposals that would hold social media platforms accountable for their failures in adequately moderating hate, abuse, and disinformation.
“Mark Zuckerberg is hiding the fact that he knows that hate, lies, and divisiveness are good for business,” said Hany Farid, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in digital forensics, image analysis, and human perception. “He’s hiding the fact that content moderation is bad for business. And so he props up these phony arguments to hide behind.”
“When Facebook makes 70 billion dollars a year, [combating disinformation] is not a resource problem. This is a priority problem,” Farid continued.
Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) called out some other tech CEOs: “Facebook, in particular, seems to enjoy a cozy relationship with the Trump administration, aided by Facebook’s loyal Trump supporters, Joel Carr and Peter Thiel. I hope that Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Thiel will soon make it before Congress... so that we can ask questions about the role that they play.”
Exasperation with social media tech giants crossed the aisle. Rep. Bill Johnson, Republican of Ohio, weighed in, saying: “It frustrates me when I hear these tech companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter and others hide behind the excuse that it’s their algorithms that are making these decisions about the content that they serve up to the American people.” Johnson cited his two degrees in computer science as his bona fides to weigh-in more deeply and patiently explained that “algorithms are logic constructs that are built by humans, and the computers are told what to do. They don’t dream this stuff up on their own.”
“When companies say they are not willing to remove certain things, what they’re really saying is that addressing white nationalism, disinformation and anti-blackness simply don’t rise to a level of urgency for them,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color Of Change.
We’ve compiled the highlights of the 3.5 hour hearing in a video above.