Executives from the largest social media companies on earth were marched in front of the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning and questioned at length about “content filtering,” political bias, fake news, and Russian trolls. By the end of the hearing, one thing was clear: They are very sorry.
Conservatives called the hearing to accuse Big Tech of censoring conservative voices, an oft-repeated claim on the right echoed by luminaries like RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Brad Parscale, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign manager. There's little hard evidence that the company’s algorithms systematically discriminate against conservatives, but the leaders of the tech giants, perhaps because of their personal liberal politics, have been very sensitive to accusations of bias.
As a result, they came ready to apologize and demonstrate their evenhandedness.
Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vp for Global Policy Management, began her testimony by profusely apologizing to pro-Trump web commentators Diamond and Silk, whose complaint that the company had an anti-Trump bias and interfered with their page dominated a Judiciary hearing earlier this year.
The execs offered some insight into why some pages are staying up even as their creators seemingly violate terms of service. Google’s director of public policy and government relations, Juniper Downs, said that Alex Jones’ YouTube channel was still up because it had not yet spread enough fake news. Facebook said much the same about Jones’ InfoWars page, explaining that the company’s “threshold varies” on how many content violations is too many. Twitter’s senior strategist for public policy, Nick Pickles, largely avoided the harsh spotlight, promising instead that the platform is working hard to become a “safe space for free expression” despite widespread complaints of harassment there.
The Big Tech execs had resisted the invitation from the committee for months, perhaps anticipating that they would be attacked. And while they did finally appear on Wednesday, the execs spent most of their time avoiding committing to or saying much of anything beyond their general apologies and commitments to evenhandedness. The company representatives repeatedly used versions of “I’ll get back to you” or reverted to vague talking points about the importance of connecting people and free expressions.
After the hearing, all three representatives hurried out and avoided reporters’ questions.
Members of Congress didn’t inspire much confidence either, in many cases opting to play for the cameras rather than pose a serious inquiry.
The Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte, for example, hyperbolically claimed that the Declaration of Independence would have “never seen the light of day” if it had been written on Facebook. And Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas claimed that Google was censoring the word “Jesus” without providing evidence or allowing Downs to respond.
Democrats, for their part, began the hearing by calling for a vote to cancel it altogether and said the committee should be focusing on Russian interference in American elections, especially after President Donald Trump’s deferential behavior toward Vladimir Putin on Monday. Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert helpfully replied they should be focusing on how the Russians helped elect Democrats for 70 years going back to Harry Truman in 1948. (The Soviets did aid Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, but as a third-party candidate from the left, Wallace was likely taking votes away from Truman.)
When it was his turn to question the executives, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California summed up the general sentiment: “Let me just ask some very basic questions so the American public understands what a dumb hearing this entire hearing is.”
Cover image: Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook Inc., from left, Juniper Downs, global head of public policy and government relations at YouTube Inc., and Nick Pickles, senior strategist of public policy at Twitter Inc., swear in to a House Judiciary Committee on social media filtering practices in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images.