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Holocaust denial, coronavirus misinformation at issue as Big Tech chiefs testify

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·6-min read

WASHINGTON — Just days before the presidential election, the chief executives of three leading technology firms — Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, Google’s parent company — testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on their efforts to combat misinformation and prevent bias from taking root in their content-moderation efforts.

Few sectors of the American economy face as much opprobrium from both the political left and right as does Silicon Valley. Republicans, in particular, believe that Big Tech is inherently biased against conservatism because technology companies are stocked with progressive employees. That conviction formed the basis of the hearing — and led to some heated exchanges.

A discomfiting back-and-forth about Holocaust denial was symbolic of how fraught the issues surrounding social media are, and how Republicans increasingly believe that Big Tech is using extant laws to engage in political censorship that favors progressives and, in some cases, left-leaning extremists.

Intending to vividly demonstrate that very point, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., asked Dorsey why the company flagged President Trump’s misleading tweets about the coronavirus but not those by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he has denied that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust by the Nazis in World War II.

Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerburg and Sundar Pichai testify remotely during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing to discuss "reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act," which protects internet companies, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 28, 2020.  (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images, U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation/Handout via Reuters (2))
Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerburg and Sundar Pichai testify remotely to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images, U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation/Handout via Reuters [2])

“We don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information,” Dorsey said, explaining that Holocaust denial is not one of the three types of misinformation that Twitter will remove. Those categories currently have to do with misinformation regarding elections and public health, as well as manipulated media such as “deep fakes.”

A representative for Twitter subsequently told Yahoo News that “Twitter’s mission is to serve the public conversation and ensure the service is a place where people can express themselves safely. We strongly condemn antisemitism, and hateful conduct has absolutely no place on our service.”

The representative further added that Holocaust denialism ran afoul of Twitter’s policies against glorifying violence and hateful conduct.

Yet tweets that appear to flagrantly violate that policy remain on the site. “I believe Israel must be erased from earth. Jews have no right to live. We need one more Holocaust of the Jews ten times bigger than the Hitler's,” went a message from a user with the handle of @ImranHaseen2. It was posted on Tuesday.

Another recent tweet from a different user called basic facts about the Holocaust “barefaced lies.”

Similar messages promoting anti-Black racism, misogyny and other forms of intolerance can also be easily found on Twitter.

As far as Democrats are concerned, social media platforms do too little, not too much, to keep Trump from spreading misinformation, about the coronavirus in particular. At one point, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., read a tweet from the president that incorrectly described children as “almost immune” from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as well as another about mail-in ballots.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Blumenthal charged that the hearing amounted to little more than an effort to “intimidate and browbeat” platforms into further amplifying such messages from the president.

Alluding to next week’s presidential election, Blumenthal said that “President Trump and the Republicans have a plan that involves disinformation and misinformation.” He wondered what social media platforms would do to counter such efforts, which could be amplified by foreign malefactors such as the Kremlin.

All three chief executives said they had plans in the works.

Democrats have also accused Google and other companies of effectively ruining the ecosystem of local news outlets, which used to provide Americans with trusted news. A just-published report by Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, says legislators “should consider requiring that news aggregation platforms enter into good-faith negotiations with local news organizations and pay them fair market value for their content.”

At issue during Wednesday’s hearing — at least nominally — was Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from legal action regarding postings by users. “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” that portion of the law says.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said, “The time has come for that free pass to end.” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said much the same thing earlier this month. “Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” Pai wrote in a memorandum. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) makes his opening statement during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on October 28, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)
Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., at the committee's hearing on Wednesday. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

The hearing comes as Republicans continue to fume about Twitter and Facebook preventing users from sharing a New York Post story about the foreign business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. They did so, they say, because the information that led to the Post story may have been improperly obtained.

Some believe the story is part of a Russian misinformation campaign, similar to the one that targeted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, though no direct evidence has been offered to support the claim of foreign involvement in the Post’s coverage.

The competing grievances from the two parties made for a hearing that quickly devolved into partisan skirmishes.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the proceedings were little more than an effort by conservatives to pressure social media companies away from content moderation that is bound to disfavor some right-wing sources. “What we are seeing today is an attempt to bully the CEOs of private companies into carrying out a hit job on a presidential candidate,” he said. He urged the three chief executives, all of whom testified remotely, to “stand up to this immoral behavior.”

On the opposite side of the argument was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called Google, Facebook and Twitter “the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) questions Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey remotely during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing 'Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?', on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., October 28, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questions Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey remotely during the committee's hearing. (Greg Nash/Pool via Reuters)

If anything, the hearing revealed the uncomfortable truth that Silicon Valley is expected to help diffuse the charged political climate it helped foster. Doing so without offending committed partisans who monitor those companies’ every move will not be an easy task.

Of the three chief executives, Dorsey came in for the harshest treatment. That may be because the platform he created is favored by Trump, not to mention many other politicians.

Cruz was acutely galled by Twitter’s locking of the New York Post’s entire account. “Mr. Dorsey,” he fumed, “who the hell elected you?” A low-key Dorsey made vague assurances that did little to pacify the furious senator from Texas.

“We realize more accountability is needed,” the Twitter co-founder acknowledged.

Cruz promptly shared several versions of the video of that exchange with his 4 million followers on Twitter, a platform of which he is an enthusiastic user.

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