Thursday’s congressional hearing on “Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation” — which again hauled the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google before U.S. lawmakers — was predictably long (running more than 5 hours) and predictably heavy on political posturing and theatrics as both Democrats and Republicans blasted the execs for their companies’ perceived shortcomings.
Amid the topics at the wide-ranging virtual hearing, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg was pressed about the social giant’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — and he mainly deflected responsibility for the incident, pointing to Donald Trump and the individuals who perpetrated the violence. He, did, however, indirectly acknowledge Facebook’s services played a part in facilitating the incident, which left five people dead.
“We did our part to secure the integrity of our election,” Zuckerberg testified. “Then President Trump gave a speech… calling on people to fight. I believe that the former president should be responsible for his words and the people who broke the law should be responsible for their actions.”
Zuckerberg was asked about comments Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made in an interview with Reuters in January, in which she asserted that the planning for the riot was “largely organized” on other social media platforms. “Certainly there was content on our services,” Zuckerberg said. “From that perspective, I think there’s further work that we need to do.” But his larger position was that the U.S. is “deeply divided” politically, and he said that isn’t “something that tech alone can fix.”
Trump was banned or suspended by numerous platforms over his role in the Jan. 6 attack. Twitter has permanently banned the ex-president, while Facebook indefinitely suspended the former U.S. president. Facebook has referred the question of whether Trump will be reinstated on Facebook or Instagram to the company’s Oversight Board.
During the hearing, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) questioned Zuckerberg about how it was possible “for you not to at least admit that Facebook played a leading role” in the planning and execution of the Capitol attack. Zuckerberg replied, “I think the responsibility lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” as well as with the people — including Trump — who falsely said the 2020 election was rigged.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, provided an affirmative “yes” when asked whether his company’s platform contributed to spreading misinformation and helped attackers organize. (Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai did not reply “yes” or “no.”) However, Dorsey added, “you also have to take into consideration the broader ecosystem. It’s not just about the technological systems that we use.”
In the wide-ranging hearing, a bulk of the discussion focused on Section 230 of Communications Decency Act, a provision of the law that shields internet platforms from liability for user-shared content.
Ahead of the hearing, Zuckerberg proposed in written testimony that Congress reform Section 230 such that “Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it.” Twitter’s Dorsey and Google’s Pichai declined to explicitly support Zuckerberg’s proposal.
In Congress, there’s clear support on both sides of the aisle for some heavier regulation in terms of how internet companies are required to treat speech on their platforms. The main takeaway, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told the CEOs, is that “self-regulation has come to the end of its road.”