Facebook's Senate Hearing on Misinformation Only Created More Misinformation

Even though Sen. Josh Hawley's explosive claims about Facebook were swiftly debunked, the right-wing misinformation machine spread them far and wide.
November 18, 2020, 2:09pm
In this Oct. 28. 2020 file photo, Facebook CEO of Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

It was like a scene from a cheap Hollywood courtroom melodrama.

“I want to talk about how you’re coordinating together to control information,” Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on election misinformation. 

Hawley was addressing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and promised he had some shocking revelations in store.

“In recent days, my office was contacted by a Facebook whistleblower, a former employee of the company, with direct knowledge of the company’s content moderation practices,” Hawley teased, before one of his staff unveiled giant, blown-up pictures of what was a supposedly top-secret internal Facebook tool.

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Hawley claimed that the picture was incontrovertible evidence that Facebook was coordinating with Google and Twitter to silence conservative voices.

And, without a doubt, that certainly would be major news — except of course it’s complete nonsense.

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The unintelligible picture Hawley posted apparently was a screenshot from Tasks, an internal tool the company uses to coordinate, well, tasks, across its workforce, which is spread across diverse geographic regions and time zones. 

Hawley pointed to specific posts that mentioned Twitter and Google.

“So as I understand it, Facebook censorship teams communicate with their counterparts at Twitter and Google, and then enter those companies suggestions for censorship onto the task platform so that Facebook can then follow up with them and effectively coordinate their censorship efforts,” he said.

Hawley was trying to suggest this screenshot was proof that Facebook, Twitter, and Google have created a cabal of censorship where they communicate directly with each other about which conservative voices to silence.

That’s not what the screenshot shows at all, as Zuckerberg pointed out.

“We do coordinate on and share signals on security-related topics. So for example, if there is a signal around a terrorist attack or around child exploitation imagery, or around a foreign government creating an influence operation, that is an area where the companies do share signals about what they see.”

Zuckerberg added that the communication "is distinct from [Facebook’s] content moderation policies."

That Facebook communicates with its fellow social media platforms on these topics is well known, and if Hawley had just picked up the phone to any of these companies — or any journalist who reports on them — he could have found this out.

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So his bombshell revelation was little more than a damp squib —but that didn’t stop the right-wing disinformation machine from firing up and claiming Hawley’s had made explosive revelations.

Within minutes of Hawley’s grandstanding in the Senate Hearing room, high profile right-wing figures like Dinesh D’Souza, Scott Baio, and David J Harris began boosting the senator’s just-debunked claims about censorship coordination across social media.

Hawley himself helped by tweeting a screenshot of the picture, claiming once again it was evidence of censorship coordination. The tweet has been liked or shared over 22,000 times.

Twitter

According to an initial analysis by First Draft News, the misinformation spread rapidly on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit, racking up tens of thousands of interactions. 

“It was primed to spread — conservative censorship, coordination, all the big names — all things that perform well online,” Madelyn Webb, an investigative researcher at First Draft News told VICE News.

Hawley’s claims were then covered unquestioningly by right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and the Federalist.  

By the end of the day, the misinformation made its way to the ultimate spreader of right-wing misinformation, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who hailed Hawley’s bombshell revelation as evidence of a “censorship cartel” allowing Hawley the chance to repeat his debunked claims once again, without mentioning Zuckerberg’s explanation.

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The fact that Hawley’s misinformation was the most consequential thing to come out of Tuesday’s four-and-a-half-hour hearing is a perfect example of just how pointless and frustrating these hearings have been. 

Senators on both sides of the aisle wasted their allotted time, either chasing personal grievances about individual accounts or posts that were blocked, or asking questions about topics as diverse as China, encryption, social media addiction, and antitrust.

True, some of them spoke about the deluge of misinformation that has blighted social media in the wake of the election results earlier this month, and how it has been driven from the top by President Donald Trump and his administration, but no one laid a glove on either Zuckerberg or Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and held them to account about how their business models have incentivized misinformation on an unprecedented scale.

The result was “tragicomic political theater,” according to Carmen Scurato, a senior policy counsel with Free Press Action, a nonpartisan digital rights organization.

“They seized on today’s hearing to relitigate an election result that voters settled earlier this month,” Scurato said in an emailed statement. ”The senators’ squabbling over imagined election fraud and platform bias is a distraction — a missed opportunity to hold these platforms to a better standard in fighting hate and disinformation.”