- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2018

In twin appearances on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey denied charges from President Trump and leading conservatives that his social media platform has engaged in “shadow banning” their views, even as the Justice Department announced plans to convene the nation’s state attorneys general to explore whether companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas.”

Wednesday’s high-profile Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the issue of online foreign election interference also featured a chaotic, impromptu press conference by Alex Jones, the polarizing right-wing media personality and publisher of the Infowars website, who blasted YouTube and other sites for banning him from their platforms.

Emotions over social media’s role in refereeing political debate have been bubbling for weeks and reached a boiling point when Mr. Trump, who has appeared on Infowars, publicly lashed out again at Google, Facebook and Twitter for favoring liberal views over those of conservatives.

“Social media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices,” Mr. Trump tweeted last month. “Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen.”

The Justice Department statement Wednesday said Attorney General Jeff Sessions would meet with his state counterparts sometime this month to look into the concerns about the practices of the social media platforms. Conservatives have long expressed concern that the heavy liberal tilt of the Silicon Valley high-tech community put them at a distinct disadvantage online.

While Twitter and Facebook were not specifically named by the Justice Department’s brief statement, Wall Street reacted anyway, sending their stocks down 6.1 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

Mr. Dorsey, the 44-year-old tech pioneer worth an estimated $6.3 billion, spoke from notes he read from his cellphone, in addition to telling the committee he was live-tweeting his opening remarks through his Twitter account. He spent the morning with the Senate intelligence panel alongside Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg then had a solo appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Before the House panel, he confirmed that a “bug” in Twitter’s internal algorithms was “unfairly filtering 600,000 accounts, including some members of Congress” in search autocomplete and results, although he said that unnamed Democrats had also been wrongly screened from followers and there was no ideological agenda at work.

“We build our policies and rules with a principle of impartiality: objective criteria, rather than on the basis of bias, prejudice, or preferring the benefit to one person over another for improper reasons,” he contended. “If we learn we failed to create impartial outcomes, we work hard to fix [it].”

Uncomfortable moments

The issues of bias, transparency and the problems that emerged with abuse of social media platforms in the 2016 presidential election made for several uncomfortable moments for the Silicon Valley executives.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s ranking Democrat, expressed clear skepticism that the firms had solved their security, transparency and privacy problems and that Congress would soon be forced to consider new regulation.

“The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end,” Mr. Warner said.

In the House hearing, Mr. Dorsey directly confronted the charge that Twitter was “shadow banning” conservative lawmakers, including Freedom Caucus founders Reps. Mark Meadows, North Carolina, and Jim Jordan, Ohio.

Mr. Dorsey agreed that in the cases mentioned “the result was not impartial” and blamed it on computer algorithms. But, he added, the issue had been fixed and Twitter needed to be judged for correcting its mistakes.

Still, some lawmakers appeared unconvinced, including committee chairman Rep. Greg Walden.

“For some of us,” the Oregon Republican said, “it seems a little bit like the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ We want to know what’s going on behind the curtain.”

Mr. Jones, who was blocked from platforms on Apple, YouTube and Spotify last month because of his views and promotion of conspiracy theories, sat prominently in the committee rooms Wednesday and provided some theater outside in the Senate office building hallway.

“The real election meddling is by Facebook and Google and others that are shadow-banning people,” Mr. Jones screamed to reporters outside the Senate hearing room just before confronting committee member, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.

With Capitol security guards watching nervously and fellow right-wing bloggers live streaming the pandemonium, Mr. Jones denounced Mr. Rubio a “frat boy”and a “little punk.”

The Florida senator laughed and dismissed the talk-show host as a “clown.” When Mr. Jones tapped him on the shoulder as he passed, Mr. Rubio said, “Hey, don’t touch me again, man. I’m asking you not to touch me again.” Asked by Mr. Jones if he wanted to see the radio personality arrested, Mr. Rubio replied, “You’re not going to get arrested. I’ll take care of you myself.”

The Senate session focused heavily on the internet giants’ response to charges of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and what was being changed for the upcoming midterm votes. There was some sharp comments for Alphabet, Google parent company, whose CEO Larry Page declined an invitation to testify. Google was represented by a glass of water and an empty chair at the hearing.

“I’m deeply disappointed that Google — one of the most influential digital platforms in the world — chose not to send its own top corporate leadership to engage this committee,” Mr. Warner said in his opening remarks, while Mr. Rubio accused the search engine giant of arrogance.

Over the past year congressional scrutiny and criticism of Silicon Valley’s social media behemoths has increased dramatically as evidence has mounted about the extent Kremlin-backed propaganda during the 2016 election cycle, including hacking and other cyber activities that led to indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey both defended their firms, arguing that just weeks before the 2018 midterm elections they are in full battle mode against foreign actors attempting to sway public debate on their digital platforms.

But Ms. Sandberg, a former chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, also conceded that Facebook was “too slow to spot this and too slow to act” when it came to tackling foreign meddling.

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