At the Senate Judiciary Committee’s four-plus-hour hearing Tuesday with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, the two social media CEOs faced attacks from Republicans and Democrats alike about their policies and practices.
GOP lawmakers, as they have repeatedly, accused Facebook and Twitter of censoring conservative viewpoints while Democrats (as they have done previously as well) blasted the companies for not doing enough to curb disinformation.
Among the questions that came up at the hearing was how Facebook and Twitter will treat the posts of President Trump — who is still refusing to concede he lost the election and has been cited as a major source of misinformation on the platforms — after he leaves the White House in January 2021, when president-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Both Facebook and Twitter have flagged numerous posts from Trump after Election Day, as he has insisted without evidence that the 2020 election was “rigged” and subject to widespread fraud.
At the hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) pointedly asked both of the CEOs, “After [Trump] stops being president, will he still deemed ‘newsworthy’ and will he still get to use your platforms to spread misinformation?”
Dorsey said Trump would no longer get a special exemption from Twitter after he leaves office. He cited Twitter’s policy for political figures like Trump, under which the platform leaves in place tweets that would be violations for regular users but which the company considers to be in the “public interest.” Twitter adopted that policy in June 2019. Such tweets are hidden behind a warning label that requires users to click through to view them. In addition, posts flagged in that manner cannot be liked or commented on.
“If an account [holder] suddenly… is not a world leader anymore, that particular policy goes away,” Dorsey said.
Facebook, meanwhile, doesn’t have any “newsworthiness” standard for how it treats content posted by politicians, Zuckerberg said. He said the way the company makes content-moderation decisions on Trump’s posts will not change.
“In terms of President Trump and moving forward, there are a small number of policies where we have exceptions for politicians under the principle that people should be able to hear what their elected officials are saying,” he said. But for the most part, according to Zuckerberg, there’s no broad exception for how Facebook applies its policies to political leaders.
Note that under Facebook’s current policy, Trump’s posts will remain subject to fact-checking once he exits the White House. “Former candidates for office or former officials continue to be covered by our third-party fact-checking program,” the company’s policy states.
In general, Zuckerberg said at the hearing, “If the president or anyone else is spreading hate speech or inciting violence or posting content that delegitimizes the election… those will receive the same treatment as anyone else saying those things, and that will continue to be the case.”
Facebook previously had a laissez-faire stance toward fact-checking content and ads posted by politicians. But in June, Zuckerberg said the company would start adding warning labels to content posted by politicians that would otherwise violate its policies in the event it is deemed to be in the “public interest.” (Facebook, however, is not hiding such posts or limiting their distribution in the way Twitter is.) The revised Facebook policy came after a backlash over Zuckerberg’s defense of the company’s decision to not take any action on Trump’s inflammatory May 29 comment. In posts on Facebook and Instagram, the president said about the unrest in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s killing by police, “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” (Twitter hid the same Trump message, citing violation of its policy against glorifying violence.)
At Tuesday’s hearing, senators on both sides of the aisle brought up the likelihood of reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — with Republicans looking to stop censorship, and Democrats seeking to clamp down on hate speech and misinformation. Section 230 currently protects internet companies from legal liability for content posted to their platforms and allows them to remove content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable” at their discretion.
Both Zuckerberg and Dorsey signaled openness to reforming Section 230 and urged lawmakers to work with the companies in developing a new framework. “It may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform,” Zuckerberg allowed. He said social media companies should be required to disclose information about their content moderation policies in a uniform way on a quarterly basis (something that Facebook already does).
Dorsey, for his part, reiterated Twitter’s proposed solutions to address the concerns raised about Section 230, which could be expansions to the existing law, new legislative frameworks, or “a commitment to industry-wide self-regulation best practices,” he said in his opening remarks. The Twitter CEO also suggested that social networks should provide greater transparency about the algorithms they use to rank and promote content, and that companies should give users more options about how content in their feeds is filtered.