A House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on monitoring social media content immediately broke down into partisan bickering and theater Tuesday, with minority Democrats highlighting instead President Trump’s Monday press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Republican lawmakers planned the hearing on “content filtering practices” as a follow-up to one in April on the same topic at which most social media giants did not participate. On Tuesday, executives with Facebook, YouTube and Google were present.
Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the committee chairman, opened the hearing by noting Facebook recently censored a Texas newspaper’s posting of quotes from the Declaration of Independence, which a company algorithm flagged as hate speech.
“The online environment is becoming more polarized – not less; and there are concerns that discourse is being squelched – not facilitated,” Mr. Goodlatte read in his opening statement. “Moreover, society as a whole is finding it difficult to define what these social media platforms are and what they do. For example, some would like to think of them as government actors, as public utilities as advertising agencies, or as media publishers – each with its own set of legal implications and potential shortfalls.”
It was clear the Republican members hoped to laser in on myriad other examples in which conservative tweeters, video makers or social media posters have been “shadowbanned,” through which their audience has declined, and on reports left-wing outfits like the Southern Poverty Law Center had been hired as a kind of arbiter for Facebook on what constitutes “hate speech” or “fake news.”
Democrats countered with examples of their own, such as the conspiracy-laden InfoWars, and Facebook’s recent hiring of former Republican senator Jon Kyl of Arizona to help it weed out bias that could stem from its left-leaning management ranks.
To buttress their claim conservative complaints about social media censorship are fairy tales, Democrats pointed to a Wall Street Journal story, published hours before the hearing commenced, headlined “Publishing executives argue Facebook is overly deferential to conservatives.”
The story concerned an off-the-record meeting Facebook held with various outlets in New York City, about which the top editors of BuzzFeed and HuffPost complained “there were about six conservative-leaning publications among the dozen or so outlets represented,” according to The Journal.
As soon as Democrats got the floor, however, they launched a sustained attempt to jerk the hearing’s focus off its stated topic and toward President Trump’s Monday press conference. Following a summit with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, the two leaders appeared together and Mr. Trump declined to back unequivocally the opinion of American’s intelligence community that the Russians tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections.
After noting “the platforms need to do a better job explaining how they make decisions to filter content and the rationale for why they do so,” Mr. Goodlatte turned the hearing over to a minority member, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who set the tone.
Openly seething, Mr. Raskin proceeded to blister the committee for a hearing he said was based on “pure fantasy.”
Rather than look at what he repeatedly labeled imaginary concerns of conservative blacklists on social media platforms, Mr. Raskin said the committee should focus instead on the “real crisis caused yesterday by President Trump.” Mr. Trump infuriated liberals and some Republicans by saying he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. elections, rather than the conclusion of the American intelligence community that it did.
When Mr. Raskin asked for the routine entering of his opening statement to be entered into the record, a Republican member objected, saying Mr. Raskin’s furious comments were “wholly outside the scope” of the hearing, but after Mr. Goodlatte said he saw no reason to deviate from custom the objection to entering the statement was withdrawn.
Later, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the second Democrat to get the microphone, immediately moved to suspend the hearing for a closed-door discussion of the alleged “emergency” he claimed is engulfing the nation after Mr. Trump’s press conference. That motion failed 12-10 on a party-line vote.
Mr. Nadler then launched into questions about Russian “attacks on our democracy.”
What became clear through the hours of testimony was that, while the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube executives noted they had identified accounts and posts linked to Russian internet operatives, the activity they had found was but a drop in the social media ocean. Twice, Juniper Downs, a YouTube executive, said they had found a mere $5,000 in spending and some 1,000 videos that could be traced to Russian meddling.
At another point in the hearing, Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, said that “a few thousand” out of some 2 billion posts were ascribed to Russian sources.
Indeed, the executives spoke only of Russian meddling, and repeatedly dodged questions about whether they had found similar efforts from other countries perceived as hostile to the United States, such as China and North Korea.
Their testimony seemed to dovetail with the recent indictments of Russian agents brought by Independent Counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation, given that when announcing them Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there was no evidence the alleged activity had influenced a single vote.
Nevertheless, despite such disclaimers and the minuscule nature of the Russian-linked work, Democrats labored throughout the day to paint the 2016 election as somehow tainted. Several Democrats spoke of “threats to American democracy,” as they thundered about the underhanded efforts and President Trump’s Monday comments, which one Democrat likened to Pearl Harbor.
Tuesday’s hearing was the committee’s second on the topic of social media behemoths’ alleged muzzling of conservative voices, either through “shadowbanning” or outright exile of some viewpoints. At the first such hearing in April, members heard from Diamond and Silk, two African-American women who support President Trump and who have accused Facebook of limiting their access to the platform or blocking or censoring their content. Hours before Tuesday’s hearing commenced, the bloggers released a short video claiming such problems persist.
The women posted their video on their Facebook page and on Twitter. In her opening statement, Ms. Bickert apologized to the women, whose real names are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, saying the company “badly mishandled” their communications with the women whose input Facebook claims to value.
The social media executives held their composure throughout the hearing, although at times they relied on rote answers about policy rather than answer specific questions about how they had handled specific incidents. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida zeroed in on Milkshakes Against the Republican Party, a Facebook page that has repeatedly urged “crazed shooters” to repeat the attack on Republican congressional baseball players in June 2017; Mr. Raskin asked about InfoWars, a conservative outlet prone to push goofy conspiracy theories against Democrats.
The executives could not pinpoint when a particular user would be banned, but all condemned the specific posts in question.