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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Sets Meeting on Whether Social Media Is ‘Stifling’ Political Viewpoints

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to meet later this month with state attorneys general to talk about a “growing concern” that social media giants “may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”

The Justice Department issued a statement announcing plans for the meeting just after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday on the foreign influence found on platforms, including that of Russia and Iran.

But the topic of Sessions’ meeting appeared to be in line with complaints from President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans that Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been stifling conservative voices. Trump has also suggested that social media giants could be in violation of antitrust laws.

Compared to the complaints over platform political bias in recent weeks, the Senate hearing was relatively free of grievances from lawmakers that conservative voices were being blocked. In his closing remarks, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the committee, even acknowledged the challenge of imposing any kind of regulation on platforms without violating the First Amendment.

Dorsey alone is set to face the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday afternoon, and is expected to face a host of questions from lawmakers who claim that Twitter’s practices have been biased against conservative voices.

Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of The Internet Association, said in a statement to Variety last week that “it’s clear to me and to most people that there is not political bias in search and there is not political bias on social media.”

Another industry group, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, responded to the Justice Department statement by arguing that there is plenty of competition for news and information.

“Technology companies compete aggressively with one another as well as those outside of the technology sector,” said Matt Schruers, vice president of the group. “Consumers have many choices for information services and news sources online. The attorneys general will find that a competing offering is always a few clicks away.”

Larry Downes,  project director of the Center for Business and Public Policy at Georgetown University, said that the Justice Department, by raising antitrust concerns, is putting pressure on platforms to take action.
“Threatening antitrust action is always the big stick the government waves when it wants to encourage voluntary changes,” he said via e-mail. “But what changes do they want?  The Administration has raised concerns that some platforms are ‘censoring’ certain political viewpoints.  But they have offered no evidence of this.
He added, “Even if there was, private actors are not bound by the First Amendment—they can moderate content however they want, with few exceptions.  If the platforms promise political neutrality, then they can be held to that promise by the Federal Trade Commission.  But again, only if there is proof that they’ve violated it.”

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