Congress to press Big Tech CEOs over speech, misinformation

WASHINGTON (AP) — The chief executive officers (CEOs) of social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google face a new grilling by Congress yesterday, one focussed on their efforts to prevent their platforms from spreading falsehoods and inciting violence.

That’s been a familiar theme for lawmakers over the past few years. But the pressure is even higher following the January 6 insurrection at the United States (US) Capitol, the rise in COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and united Democratic control of Congress and the White House. The latter could make legislative action more likely, although it remains far from a sure thing.

As malicious conspiracy theories continue to spread, lawmakers are pounding the social media companies over their market dominance, harvesting of user data and practices that some believe actually encourage the spread of engaging but potentially harmful misinformation. Some Republicans have also alleged, without proof, censorship and political bias against conservatives as another reason to rein in the enormous firms.

There’s increasing support in Congress for imposing new curbs on legal protections regarding speech posted on their platforms. Both Republicans and Democrats — including US President Joe Biden as a candidate — have called for stripping away some of the protections under so-called Section 230 of a 25-year-old telecommunications law that shields internet companies from liability for what users post.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter Chief Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai — whose company owns YouTube — will testify in a virtual hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media apps are displayed on screen. PHOTO: AFP

The session’s title leaves little doubt as to the majority Democrats’ stance: ‘Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.’

These executives testified on the subject at several congressional hearings last year, sometimes under threat of subpoena. This time they face tougher dynamics and may be called to account for earlier promises.

In a Senate hearing shortly after the election in November, for instance, Zuckerberg and Dorsey gave lawmakers assurances of vigorous action against disinformation.

Former US president Donald Trump enjoyed special treatment on Facebook and Twitter until January, despite spreading misinformation, pushing false claims of voting fraud, and promulgating hate. Facebook banned Trump indefinitely a day after rioters egged on by Trump swarmed the Capitol. Twitter soon followed, permanently disabling Trump’s favoured bullhorn.

Banning a sitting president from social media was an unprecedented step. Of course, so was Trump’s heavy use of Twitter to lambaste opponents, laud supporters and spread false claims to more than 80 million followers. He was also only the second president to have a social media presence while in office.

Facebook hasn’t yet decided whether it will banish the former president permanently. The company punted that decision to its quasi-independent Oversight Board — sort of a Supreme Court of Facebook enforcement — which is expected to rule on the matter next month.

Republicans have stepped up their complaints of alleged censorship and anti-conservative bias at the social media platforms.

Researchers said there’s no evidence that the social media giants are biased against conservative news, posts or other material, or that they favour one side of political debate over another.