Censorship, Suppression and the 2020 Election

In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, the Senate continues to battle over the enormous power wielded by social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to censor and referee the American democratic process.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Nov. 17 to address the position that Twitter and Facebook operate in the American political system in relation to Section 230. The Senate Judiciary Committee was joined by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The hearing was meant to address Section 230 and the election practices of the social media giants.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), chairman of the committee, began the proceedings by voicing his concerns about how the companies operate.

“My goal is to try to find out is if you’re not a newspaper at Twitter or Facebook, then why do you have editorial control over the New York Post. They decided, and maybe for a good reason, I don’t know, that the New York Post article about Hunter Biden needed to be flagged, excluded from the distribution, or made hard to find. That to me seems like you’re the ultimate editor,” said the senator.

Sen. Graham sought some reform for Section 230 but conceded that the law was beneficial to the companies’ survival early on.

“The question for us as a country at what point do the decisions by these organizations cross the line? At what point do they have to assume responsibility that Section 230 chills them from, and to the people about to testify, I consider your products to have changed the world mostly for the good… Section 230 was developed to allow these technologies to flourish. Early on, if you could sue Twitter or Facebook for content on a Facebook posting or a tweet and they were liable for what somebody else said or what they felt or did, then the company would have probably never been in existence,” said Sen. Graham.

While Sen. Graham attacked the companies for practices he believed amounted to censorship, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) took the opposite viewpoint.

“The recent actions you have taken, in fact, are simply to check a truth of what appears on platforms often it is voter suppression and incendiary malicious misinformation, and you’ve tried to slow its insidious spread that’s not censorship that’s a moral and civic responsibility,” said Sen. Blumenthal.

During Dorsey’s opening statements, he highlighted the outcome of what Twitter saw during the recent presidential election.

“We focused on addressing attempts to undermine civic integrity, providing informative context and product changes to encourage greater conversation…More than a year ago, the public asked us to offer additional context to help make potentially misleading information more apparent. We did exactly that, applying labels to over 300,000 tweets from Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, which represented about 0.2% of all US election-related tweets. We also changed how our product works in order to help increase context and encourage more thoughtful consideration before tweets are shared before we’re continuing to assess the impact of these product changes to inform a long term,” said Dorsey.

While Zuckerberg did not describe an in-depth outcome from Facebook’s regulation of the presidential election, he did address the need for election reform.

“I also welcome the opportunity to discuss internet regulation. I believe we are well overdue to update the rules for the internet around content, elections, privacy, and data portability,” said Zuckerberg.

The hearing then turned over to questioning, beginning with Sen. Graham.

“From my point of view, the question for us is when it comes time to flag content for being reliable or unreliable, do either one of you believe that the government should do that? Is that a solution where the government sets a regulatory scheme that talks what should be up and what should be down?” asked Sen. Graham.

Both CEOs were hesitant about having the government playing a larger role in the regulation of internet content. Zuckerberg did welcome government intervention and regulation in areas such as child trafficking and terrorism, where the lines can be drawn much clearer in terms of harmful content.

“There is a role for regulation in the process, even if not defining a piece of content by piece of content basis. One of the areas that I have advocated for is regulation around transparency. That goes beyond just about what the policies are and what the process is but also goes towards results,” added Zuckerberg.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) explicitly brought the conversation back to the issue of reform to government regulation when it came to his turn to ask questions.

“The question is going to be how this regulation is going to come to pass. I know there are some, including on this committee, who suggest that maybe we ought to create a private right to action so that individuals can sue over claims of violated rights on your platforms. I think that is one form of regulation, it is called regulation by litigation, but it is certainly not my first choice, it is not optimal, and I don’t think it’s something we ought to be embracing in the first instance,” said Cornyn.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) spent most of her time prying into Twitter’s response to President Donald Trump’s tweets following the election.

She asked Dorsey if the label that went on that tweet “goes far enough to prevent the tweets harms when the tweet is still visible and not accurate.”

Dorsey stated that he did believe the labeling went far enough because it points to other news stories and sources with reliable information. Sen. Feinstein continued to press Dorsey on the issue by reading off a number of tweets from the president, but Dorsey was instant that Twitter’s efforts were sufficient.

When the questioning turned over to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the tension between Dorsey and Sen. Cruz displayed during the last hearing reared its head once again.

Sen. Cruz asked Dorsey about the existence of voter fraud and if he had a degree of expertise in the area to back-up Twitter’s labeling of any tweets related to it.

“We’re simply linking to a broader conversation, so people have more information,” said Dorsey.

“No, you’re not,” responded Sen. Cruz. “You put up a page that says, quote, ‘Voter fraud of any kind is exceedingly rare in the United States.’ That’s not linking to a broader conversation, that’s taking a disputed policy position, and you’re a publisher when you’re doing that. You’re entitled to take a policy position, but you don’t get to pretend you’re not a publisher and get a special benefit under section 230 as a result.”

Sen. Cruz then read two quotes about voter fraud and asked Dorsey if Twitter would label them. Dorsey tentatively affirmed that Twitter would probably place some form of a label on those quotes.

“Well, you’re right that you would label them because you have taken the political position right now that voter fraud doesn’t exist. I would note that both of those quotes come from the Carter-Baker Commission on federal election reform. That is Democratic president Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, and Twitter’s position is essentially that voter fraud does not exist.”

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