Congress pressures tech companies to ban more accountsJuly 17, 2018
At the end of a three-hour hearing that was meant to address concerns over censorship and wound up including everything from whether Google blocks mentions of Jesus to President Donald Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin, lawmakers landed on an unlikely conclusion: it’s time to ban more accounts.
Pointing to posts from hyperpartisan Facebook pages including Infowars and Milkshakes Against the Republic Party that appeared to incite violence, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee asked tech executives to make it clearer when they would ban accounts of repeat offenders. It marked a rare point of agreement during a hearing that Democrats repeatedly called a waste fo time.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) noted that conspiracy site Infowars had repeatedly denied the reality of mass shootings, warning followers that they were performed by “crisis actors” as a pretext for taking away people’s guns. Shooting survivors subsequently faced harassment and death threats from Infowars’ fans. “What’s happened with Infowars? They’ve made a cottage industry out of this. Why are they still on Facebook?”
Facebook’s global head of policy management, Monika Bickert, said that while Facebook had removed some of Infowars’ posts, Infowars itself did not deserve to be banned. “If they posted sufficient content that it violated our threshold, the page would come down,” she told Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who asked a similar question. “That threshold varies depending on the severity of different types of violations.”
But when it came to Infowars, she told Raskin, “they have not reached the threshold.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asked Bickert why Facebook had not banned a page named Milkshakes Against the Republican Party, which had posted content that appeared to call for shootings against Republican lawmakers. Bickert said she would investigate the page and get back to him.
Lawmakers’ pressure on Facebook to ban more pages, which came toward the end of an unproductive and often angry three-hour hearing, made for a somewhat unexpected conclusion given the intended topic of the hearing. Today’s discussion was meant as a follow up to an April hearing about “social media censorship” in the case of two vloggers who post under the names Diamond and Silk.
Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter declined Congress’ invitation to appear at that hearing, which quickly devolved into a circus. But they showed up for this one, and were subjected to more questions about alleged censorship from the platforms, pointing to a handful of instances in which conservative-leaning sites had posts removed, or saw their reach decline over time.
One lawmaker inquired why the right-wing site Gateway Pundit had seen decreased Facebook traffic; Bickert said she could not speak to an individual site’s performance. Many publishers of all political bents have seen steep declines in traffic from Facebook since the company changed its algorithm earlier this year.
Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter all said that their policies take neutral stances politically, and said it is in their best interest to host voices from across the ideological spectrum.
Lawmakers also raised the possibility that they would revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which offers platforms like Facebook limited immunity for being sued over what their users post. The tool is widely seen as protecting free expression on the internet. But some lawmakers want platforms to be held accountable for user posts, at least in some instances.
“I’m all for freedom of speech, and free enterprise, and for competition and finding a way that competition itself does its own regulation so government doesn’t have to,” said Rep. Steve King (R-IA). “But if this gets further out of hand, it appears to me that Section 230 needs to be reviewed.”
Democrats on the committee repeatedly questioned the point of the hearing, urging their Republican counterparts to turn their attention to more pressing issues. “What a dumb hearing this entire hearing is,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA).