Today, the CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Twitter appeared in front of Congress to discussion the ongoing misinformation problem that has plagued the online world over the last few years.
The hearing — announced in February — was largely in response to the Capitol riots earlier this year, as well as the misinformation campaign surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Reports have surfaced that the majority of the rioters had planned the attack in advance on a variety of platforms that have consistently struggled with this kind of nefarious behavior.
“For far too long, big tech has failed to acknowledge the role they've played in fomenting and elevating blatantly false information to its online audiences,” said the committee chairs. “Industry self-regulation has failed.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai had a lot to say during the hearing — titled “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation” — so we've collected some of their most poignant points below.
Changes to Section 230
If you've been following the political discourse in regards to the tech industry of late, you know that the primary legislative concerns are that of Section 230, a law that protects tech companies from being liable for the content posted on their platforms.
This hearing, as senators made clear, was the jumping off point to rewrite some of that legislature in hopes of keeping these companies in check. And, surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg actually had some concrete ideas on how to do so.
“I would support two specific changes [to Section 230] especially in regards to large platforms… First, platforms should have to issue transparency reports that state the prevalence of content across all different categories of harmful content. The second change that I would propose is creating accountability for the large platforms to have effective systems in place to moderate and remove clearly illegal content.”
Once these suggestions were made by Facebook's CEO, the subcommittee had to find out what the other two CEOs had to say about it and whether or not they agreed with what he had to say.
“There are definitely good proposals around transparency and accountability. We would certainly welcome legislative approaches in the future.” said Pichai.
While Pichai wasn't entirely on board, they did concede that transparency and accountability are hard to argue with. Dorsey, on the other hand, did add a stipulation to his tepid agreement.
“I think the idea around transparency are good, but I think it's going to be very hard to tell the difference between small business and large businesses and it may incentivize the wrong things,” said Dorsey.
The self-regulatory system in place for these companies has admittedly gotten out of hand, and updates to Section 230 — particularly in regards to transparency and accountability — are certainly warranted. Now we'll just have to see if these are merely words to get out of a hearing or a true commitment to actually change.
Responsibility for Capitol Riot
As mentioned earlier, the hearing was largely scheduled due to the Capitol riots on January 6th. Subsequently, many on the subcommittee were determined to get the CEOs to discuss how much responsibility they bear for the attacks. Unfortunately, they weren't going to budge on that one.
“The responsibility lies with the people that decided to break the law,” said Zuckerberg.
However, while they didn't take any responsibility for their platforms' roles in the Capitol riots, the CEOs were quick to elaborate on the many ways in which they did their part in tamping down the violence, as well as the misinformation that caused it.
“In response [to election misinformation], we raised up authoritative sources across our products. On YouTube, we removed livestreams and videos that violated our incitement of violence policy and began issuing strikes to those in violation of our presidential election policy,” said Pichai.
As for why the CEOs were so hesitant to take responsibility for what their platforms have done to political discourse in this country, Zuckerberg was happy to throw the entire system under the bus rather than admit that Facebook has some problems of its own.
“The division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart and we need to reckon with that if we're going to make progress.” Zuckerberg said.
Sure, he's not wrong. But it was painfully obvious throughout the proceedings that Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Pichai were adamantly unwilling to admit that these platforms could be doing a lot more as far as quelling the political storm that continues to rage on a daily basis.
The Capitol riots weren't the only reason this subcommittee on misinformation was formed. The hearing also hoped to address growing concerns about pandemic misinformation, particular with the vaccine being rolled out across the country. However, Mark Zuckerberg had to make sure to make sure to shout out free speech while doing so.
“I don't think anyone wants a world where you can only say things that private companies judge to be true. We also don't want misinformation to spread that undermines confidence in vaccines, stops people from voting, or causes other harms.”
As is to be expected in a Congressional hearing with tech CEOs, explaining the finer points of how social media works and why some hateful, confusing language falls through the cracks became a regular part of the process. When asked why Twitter hadn't explicitly banned the use of offensive hashtags like #ChinaFlu, Dorsey explained that it simple isn't that easy.
“When we see content associated with hateful conduct, we will take action on it. However, it's useful to remember that a lot of these hashtags do contain counter-speech, and people on the other side of it do show why this is so terrible and why it needs to stop.”
With a complicated issue like the pandemic, it's understandable that social media platform haven't been able to effectively mitigate all the risk. Still, it would be nice to see some accountability when it comes to why these problems have persisted at this level for such a long time.