On Nov 17th, a Senate hearing was held over legal protections for Social Media companies. CEOs of Twitter and Facebook were put to scrutiny by senators during the hearing. The Republican senators accused the social media companies of political bias and also charged them with unfair business practices and market dominance. The charges are seen as laying the ground for curbs on the long-held legal protections for these social media companies.
Social Media users were witness to repeated interventions by Facebook and Twitter into the posts of US President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters. Many of Trump’s posts on Twitter were repeatedly marked as ‘disputed’, some labelled as misinformation and some were even deleted. Facebook was accused of limiting the reach of Republican supporters while giving a free run to the Democrats. Twitter has in many cases prevented users from retweeting Trump’s tweets.
Another example of limiting pro-Republican posts was the case of the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign. The “Stop the Steal” campaign was started on social media by Trump supporters after Nov 3rd protesting against the continued vote count. The 350,000-member group echoed Trump’s allegations of a rigged election rendering the results invalid. Facebook made all posts supporting the campaign harder to find with many posts disappearing from the platform.
At the hearing however, the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook said that these actions were measures against ‘election disinformation’. They argued that these were the ‘safeguards’ they implemented to ensure that their platforms are not used to spread falsehoods and incite violence in the contest between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
Republican senators revived complaints of censorship and anti-conservative bias against the social media platforms at the hearing. Social media observers say that the actions Twitter and Facebook took against Republican posts had angered Trump and his supporters and accused it of anti-conservative bias. The platforms say that they have focused their concern on hate speech and incitement on social media platforms that can spawn violence.
However, even the Democrat senators have called to curb the legal protections the social media platforms have had. President-elect Biden has also called for stripping away some of the protections that have shielded these companies from legal responsibility for what people post.
Republican senators and Committee Chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham pushed the case for Congress to curb the tech companies’ legal shield saying that there is a widespread concern about the power that is being used by social media outlets to tell us what we can see and what we can’t, what’s true and what’s not! Senators across the lines have also made common cause on Big Tech’s market dominance, endorsing stronger enforcement of antitrust laws and breakup of giants like Facebook and Google.
October hearing set the stage
In October too, the CEOs of Google, Twitter and Facebook rejected accusations of anti-conservative bias at a Senate hearing and promised to defend their platforms from being used to sow chaos in the US election. The hearing was mandated after they came under the fire of US President Donald Trump and his allies before the elections. Expressing concern over election security, senators on the commerce committee pressed the CEOs of the social media companies to promise that their companies will be on guard against meddling by foreign actors or the incitement of violence around the election results.
Republicans, led by Trump, have always accused the social media platforms of deliberately suppressing conservative, religious and anti-abortion views, and say that behavior has reached new heights just before the elections. The accusation gained credence after Facebook and Twitter resorted to limit dissemination of a political story by the reputed New York Post about the Hunter-Biden email controversy. The story cited emails from Biden’s son Hunter which reportedly exposed him of working to set up business deals in Ukraine and China that traded on his famous family’s name and peddling influence with his father.
After the Post published its story on the Hunter emails, Twitter temporarily blocked users from sharing it, arguing it violated the platform’s policy on hacked information. Facebook also specifically tweaked its algorithm to limit the spread of the story. Republicans say it’s evidence of the platforms’ anti-conservative bias. During the hearing before the elections, Texas Senator Ted Cruz had said that Twitter’s conduct has by far been the most egregious. He alleged that limitations on the newspaper story was part of “a pattern of censorship and silencing Americans with whom Twitter disagrees. “Who the hell elected you? And put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report?” Cruz asked.
Several Twitter and Facebook employees have been accused of Left leaning, an accusation that has found takers in India too. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had said “I would guess that our employee base skews left-leaning.” Several Republican senators pressed the CEO’s to name a single Democrat whose tweets or Facebook posts they’ve flagged as ‘disputed’ or labelled as misinformation just as they did for Trump, they were unable to name a single instance.
In India, the social media conglomerates and their Indian employees are accused of political bias. Last year, supporters of the ruling party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – accused Twitter of favouring the left in policing the platform. In January 2019, Twitter suspended SquintNeon, a popular parody account that often took a jibe at liberal accounts and media.
Another account regularly targeted by Twitter is @TrueIndology, now @TIinExile. The original account was suspended after mass reporting. The account resurfaced as @TIinExile and this too was suspended on 17th November, 2020.
While the social media platforms and their CEOs have denied several times that as a company they do not have any political leaning, their arbitrary actions have left users distraught and confused. It is also not entirely clear as to how these social media companies handle reports, suspension and bans, as their actions in most cases seem arbitrary. The social media giants will do well to assuage these concerns and address the queries as clearly as possible before their reputation takes a beating.