By Mike Masnick
The timing on this is quite incredible. On Monday, Georgia’s (Republican) Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, spoke out, saying that Senator Lindsey Graham had called him and implied that Raffensperger should look to throw out ballots that were legally cast in the state. On Tuesday morning, in trying to defend his efforts to undermine the election, Graham tried to shake off his calls with Raffensperger as no big deal, saying that he also spoke to Arizona and Nevada election officials. This does not make things better. Indeed, it actually seems to make things worse (and that’s even after Arizona’s Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs, claimed that Graham’s claims were “false” and she never spoke to him.
All of this certainly seems like cause for concern about election interference and tampering. Indeed, it’s the kind of thing a good government would at least investigate. And, in a stroke of good timing, the Senate Judiciary Committee was all set up on Wednesday to host a hearing about the 2020 Election and “suppression.” Except… this hearing was organized and chaired by the very same Senator Lindsey Graham, and was yet another dog and pony show of internet CEOs having to defend specific content moderation choices.
Now a sane person who loosely follows the news might be saying “wait, didn’t we just do that last month?” And you’d be right. Just a few weeks ago, there was an almost identical hearing. Both hearings had Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (the earlier hearing also had Google’s Sundar Pichai). Both hearings featured a bunch of grandstanding and often clueless Senators demanding to know specific answers to why the websites did or did not moderate specific pieces of content.
But this time it was the Senate Judiciary Committee, as compared to the Senate Commerce Committee last time. There were a few overlapping guests — including Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Marsha Blackburn. This one also included Senator Josh Hawley who grandstands with the best of them over this issue. Cruz and Lee basically did a warmed over, half-baked rehash of their performances from a few weeks ago. Hawley’s performance was particularly stupid. He claimed to have heard from a “whistleblower” inside Facebook and posted two grainy screenshots of internal Facebook tools. One was its “Tasks” tool, which is a general company-wide task manager tool, which Hawley used to imply that Facebook, Twitter and Google are some how colluding to figure out which users, hashtags, and content they’re going to suppress.
This is not how any of this works. Hawley demanded that Zuckerberg turn over every mention of Google or Twitter in their Tasks tool, and Zuck quite reasonably pointed out that he couldn’t commit to that without knowing what sort of sensitive information might be involved. This is basically the equivalent of Hawley asking for every email that mentions Twitter or Google. It’s an insane and intrusive request, though he threatened to subpoena the company if Zuckerberg wouldn’t comply. Hawley then demanded to know if any Facebook employees ever communicate with Twitter or Google.
Zuckerberg, again, quite reasonably, pointed out that he’s sure that people who work in trust and safety at some point or another know of people in similar roles at other companies and he’s sure at some point or another some of them communicate with each other, but that’s quite different than plotting over what content to block as Hawley kept insisting. Hawley then trotted out another screenshot of some other internal tool that Zuckerberg says he didn’t recognize and thus couldn’t answer any questions about — which Hawley again pretended to be some damning evasiveness from the CEO. What it actually suggested is that this is not a very important tool, and Hawley is clearly overstating what it’s used for.
Oh, and Hawley, ridiculously, insisted on calling the trust and safety teams at these companies “censorship teams,” and implying that they deliberately try to silence ideological content (they do not). Of course, what’s truly crazy is that many of the half-dozen or so different Section 230 reform bills that Hawley has introduced in the Senate would actually require more content takedowns than we have today. But you can’t be a demagoguing populist without demagoguing while the cameras are on, and Hawley played his part.
If you’d like to read my play-by-play response to the entire hearing as it happened, I have a very long Twitter thread:
Here I am, awake in the early morning to watch @LindseyGrahamSC hold a hearing on “suppression and the 2020 election” a day after it was revealed that *he* was demanding Georgia’s Secretary of State throw out *legal* votes. The hearing’s not about Graham, though, but “big tech.” pic.twitter.com/OgLfUvXVrO
— Mike Masnick (@mmasnick) November 17, 2020
Or if you’re truly a glutton for punishment, you can watch the entire 4 hours and 43 minutes of the hearing but I do not recommend that for your own sanity:
Like other hearings involving the internet, this hearing was big on rhetoric, ignorance on the part of the senators and no clear urgent need for such a hearing right now. For the most part, you had Republican senators mad about choices to moderate certain content (or to make decisions too quickly that later turned out to be mistaken), while Democratic senators were mad about choices not to moderate other content (or to make decisions too slowly). In other words, they see this debate as a sort of tug o’ war, with the companies as the rope, and their main hope is to influence content moderation to work the way they want it to work, if they could wave a magic wand and just enable the content that they and their supporters want.
We should see this entire thing as an affront to the 1st Amendment. Demanding changes (in either direction) to the content moderation practices of private websites is a massive 1st Amendment issue. Imagine if Democratic senators called in Fox News execs to complain about story choices? Or Republicans did the same with the NY Times. 1st Amendment and free press people would be reasonably up in arms over this gross abuse of power over something that the Constitution deliberately and clearly says Congress has no authority over.
So why do we let them do this to social media companies?
Much of the hearing was little more than moral panic claim after moral panic claim, highlighting the nature and problems of society itself — and then pinning the blame on social media. It’s the same moral panic we’ve seen play out over and over again for centuries. Some new medium comes about, and people use it. Some people use it for things that upset other people, and rather than look at the underlying causes, it’s easier to blame the messenger.
It’s as disappointing as it is predictable.
And chances are it’s only going to continue. Towards the end of the hearing Senator Thom Tillis (and Senator Chris Coons) suggested that both Zuckerberg and Dorsey should commit to returning again next month. And Senator Richard Blumenthal even laughed mirthfully in closing out the hearing by saying he fully expected there to be many, many more hearings with these execs.
It’s all for show. The senators want to be seen to be doing something and picking on these platforms is a welcome distraction from actual problems in society — including a president who refuses to concede in the election he lost, the quarter of a million (and climbing) dead people from a botched COVID response (and the lack of any real effort to deal with COVID as it sweeps across the country again), and so many other things. Rather than facing actual problems facing society, Senator Lindsey Graham and his colleagues have decided that it’s best to play “look! squirrel!” and insist that the biggest problem of today is that Twitter and Facebook want to fact check the president when he spews nonsense and dangerous conspiracy theories.