Congress to Press Big Tech CEOs Over Speech, Misinformation

This combination of 2018-2020 photos shows, from left, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, LM Otero, Jens Meyer)

The CEOs of social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google face a new grilling by Congress Thursday, one focused on their efforts to prevent their platforms from spreading falsehoods and inciting violence.

That’s been a familiar theme for lawmakers over the past few years. But the pressure is even higher following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the rise in COVID vaccine misinformation and united Democratic control of Congress and the White House. The latter could make legislative action more likely, although it remains far from a sure thing.

As malicious conspiracy theories continue to spread, lawmakers are pounding the social media companies over their market dominance, harvesting of user data and practices that some believe actually encourage the spread of engaging but potentially harmful misinformation.

There’s increasing support in Congress for imposing new curbs on legal protections regarding speech posted on their platforms. Both Republicans and Democrats — including President Joe Biden as a candidate — have called for stripping away some of the protections under so-called Section 230 of a 25-year-old telecommunications law that shields internet companies from liability for what users post.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai — whose company owns YouTube — will testify in a virtual hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The session’s title leaves little doubt as to the majority Democrats’ stance: “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.”

These executives testified on the subject at several congressional hearings last year, sometimes under threat of subpoena. This time they face tougher dynamics and may be called to account for earlier promises. In a Senate hearing shortly after the election in November, for instance, Zuckerberg and Dorsey gave lawmakers assurances of vigorous action against disinformation.

Republicans have stepped up their complaints of alleged censorship and anti-conservative bias at the social media platforms.
Democrats, meanwhile, are largely focused on hate speech and incitement that can spawn real-world violence.

The report from Avaaz, a nonprofit advocacy group that says it seeks to protect democracies from misinformation, identified several hundred pages and groups on Facebook that it says spread violence-glorifying material to a combined following of 32 million users. Facebook acknowledged that its policy enforcement “isn’t perfect,” but said the report distorts its work against violent extremism and misinformation.

The tech CEOs plan a spirited defense of the liability shield under Section 230, saying it has helped make the internet the forum of free expression that it is today. Zuckerberg, however, will also again urge Congress to update that law to ensure it’s working as intended. He’s adding a specific suggestion: Congress could require internet platforms to gain legal protection only by proving that their systems for identifying illegal content are up to snuff.