The CEOs of America’s biggest technology companies faced a grilling from Congress about the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol, as protesters outside the hearing denounced the platforms for playing a role in fueling the violence.
Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter on Thursday were called to testify before two committees of the House of Representatives on social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.
Protesters who had gathered outside the Capitol building ahead of the hearing portrayed the tech executives as the violent insurrectionists whose images went viral in the days after the 6 January riots. One cutout erected on the grounds showed Zuckerberg as the “QAnon Shaman”, a part-time actor with a horned furry hat who participated in the riot.
“The platforms’ inability to deal with the violence, hate and disinformation they promote on their platforms shows that these companies are failing to regulate themselves,” said Emma Ruby-Sachs, the executive director of SumofUs, the human rights organization behind the protests. “After the past five years of manipulation, data harvesting and surveillance, the time has come to rein in big tech.”
Lawmakers opened the hearing with video testimonies, criticizing the platforms for their role in the 6 January violence, as well as in the spread of medical misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine.
“You failed to meaningfully change after your platform has played a role in fomenting insurrection and abetting the spread of the virus and trampling American civil liberties,” said the Democratic representative Frank Pallone, the chair of the energy and commerce committee. “Your business model itself has become the problem and the time for self-regulation is over. It’s time we legislate to hold you accountable,” he added.
“You’re not passive bystanders – you are not non-profits or religious organizations that are trying to do a good job for humanity – you’re making money,” Pallone later said. “The point we’re trying to make today is that when you spread misinformation, when extremists are actively promoted and amplified, you do it because you make more money.”
“The witnesses here today have demonstrated time and time again, that self-regulation has not worked,” echoed Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic representative from Illinois. “They must be held accountable for allowing disinformation and misinformation to spread.”
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers quickly turned to the topic of “cancel culture” and perceived, but unproven, bias against conservatives on social media.
In his opening statement, Facebook’s Zuckerberg, argued that the tech companies should not be making the decisions around what is allowed online, and stressed Facebook’s efforts to combat misinformation and its spread of vaccine information.
Google’s Pichai, too, sought to highlight his company’s role in connecting users with vaccine information and other Covid-19 resources.
Thursday’s session is the latest in a record number of hearings for the big technology players in the past year, as executives have repeatedly been called to the Hill to testify on antitrust issues, misinformation and hate speech.
The hearing, which was titled “Disinformation nation: social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation”, was held by the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee.
Lawmakers repeatedly pressed the CEOs on how their platforms were tackling hate speech and misinformation more widely.
The Democratic representative Doris Matsui, of California, raised the issue of anti-Asian hate speech and directly asked Dorsey and Zuckerberg what they are doing to address it. She also asked why they took so long to remove racist hashtags that promoted blame for the coronavirus pandemic on Asian Americans, citing the recent attack on Asian women in Atlanta as a consequence of these policies.
“The issues we are discussing here are not abstract,” she said. “They have real world consequences and implications that are too often measured in human lives.”
She also cited a study that showed a substantial rise in hate speech the week after Donald Trump first used the term “China flu” in a tweet.
Dorsey countered by saying he will not ban the racist hashtags outright because “a lot of these hashtags contain counter speech”, or posts refuting the racism the hashtags initiated. Zuckerberg similarly said that hate speech policies at Facebook are “nuanced” and that they have an obligation to protect free speech.
Congressman Tony Cárdenas of California has asked Zuckerberg how the company addresses the major problem of misinformation that targets Latino users, noting that studies have shown Facebook catches less false content in Spanish than in English.
Zuckerberg responded that Facebook has an international factchecking program with workers in more than 80 countries speaking “a bunch of languages” including Spanish. He also said Facebook translates accurate information about Covid-19 vaccines and other issues from English into a number of languages.
Cárdenas noted the example of his Spanish-speaking mother-in-law saying she did not want to get a vaccine because she heard on social media it would place a microchip in her arm.
“For God’s sake, that to me is unbelievable, that she got that information on social media platforms,” he said. “Clearly Spanish language misinformation is an issue.”