Republican senators grilled the chief executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday over the companies’ handling of political content, accusing them of censoring conservative viewpoints.

“Given the disparate impact of who gets censored on your platforms, it seems that you’re either one, not enforcing your terms of service equally, or alternatively, two, that you’re writing your standards to target conservative viewpoints,” Sen, Mike Lee, R-Utah, told the executives.

Tech company chief executives Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google) and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook testified that they receive complaints of bias from both conservatives and liberals, but there is not an intentional partisan moderation of content on their platforms.

The hearing comes in the wake of Twitter’s response to a controversial New York Post story about Hunter Biden. Twitter initially blocked its users from sharing the story on its platform, citing internal policy, but ultimately updated its house rules.

The hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee centered on a little-known federal provision called Section 230 that has long shielded internet companies of liable claims for content posted on their sites.

The section found in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 says a “provider or user of an interactive computer service” cannot be held liable for action taken in good faith “to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

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“For almost 25 years, the preservation of internet freedom has been the hallmark of a thriving digital economy in the United States,” committee chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said during his opening remarks. The chairman attributed that success to “a light touch regulatory framework and to Section 230.”

“Much has changed,” Wicker added, “the internet is no longer an emerging technology. The companies before us today are no longer scrappy startups operating out of a garage or a dorm room. They are now among the world’s largest corporations wielding immense power in our economy, culture and public discourse.”

Republican senators spent much of the hearing alleging that the tech companies have an anti-conservative bias in moderating content on their platforms.

But Democrats, like Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, called the hearing a “sham” and accused Republicans of playing politics by holding the hearing less than a week before the Nov. 3 general election.

Tech company chief executives attended the hearing digitally — as did most senators.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee questions chief executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Oct. 28, 2020. Lee, like most members of the committee attended the hearing digitally. | Jeff Parrott, Deseret News

Lee quoted statements from each of the business leaders about how their companies operate without partisan bias.

“Now these quotes make me think that there is a good case to be made that you’re engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices in violation of federal law,” Lee said. “You seem to do the opposite and take censorship-related actions against the president, against members of his administration,” against conservative media outlets and “pro-life groups.”

The Utah senator said his use of the word “censor” means when the tech companies take actions to “block content fact-check, or label content, or demonetized websites of conservative, Republican, or pro-life individuals or groups or companies.”

Lee then asked each to provide an example when they had “censored” a Democratic politician or an organization like Planned Parenthood or EMILY’s List — a political action group that supports the campaigns of “pro-choice Democratic women.”

Zuckerberg responded by offering to provide a list of examples of times when Lee’s “Democratic colleagues object to when a fact checker might label something as false.”

The Utah senator pressed Zuckerberg to name “one high-profile liberal person or company who you have censored.”

The Facebook CEO again offered to provide a list and said “there are certainly many, many issues on both sides of the aisle where people think we are making content moderation decisions that they disagree with.”

Twitter’s Dorsey also offered to provide “a more extensive list” and said Twitter had “taken action on tweets” from two Democratic members of the House. Dorsey said he would provide the names to Lee.

“We don’t censor, we have moderation policies which we apply equally,” said Alphabet executive Pichai, pushing back on Lee’s definition of censor.

The senator clarified that he had used “the word censor as a term of art” and referred Pichai to his previous definition.

“I’m not asking for a comprehensive list. I want a name, any name,” Lee asked of Pichai.

The executive said his company had turned down ads from Priorities USA (a progressive values political organization) and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. He said they’d also had “compliance issues” with British monthly magazine Socialist Review.

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“But, for example, we have a graphic content policy” Pichai added. “We don’t allow for ads which show graphic, violent content in those ads. And we have taken down ads on both sides of the campaign.” 

“Look there is a disparity between the censorship — and again I’m using that as a term of art as I defined it a moment ago — between the censorship of conservative and liberal points of view. And it’s an enormous disparity,” Lee told the executives.

Zuckerberg and Dorsey both said there is no intentional partisan moderation on their platforms. The Facebook CEO said the social network is a “big company” and that there are “probably mistakes that are made from time to time.” There is an opportunity for Twitter to be more transparent about how the company works, Dorsey added.

Facebook, bias and the battle over conservative and liberal content on social media

According to an August Pew Research Center study, 90% of people of who lean Republican believe “social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints they find objectionable,” while 59% of Democratic leaning people feel that way.

The Deseret News has reported that Facebook’s daily most popular stories are overwhelmingly conservative. Wired magazine editor at large Steven Levy — who wrote the book “Facebook, The Inside Story” — told the Deseret News performance of conservative content on Facebook isn’t proof that the complaints about Facebook are wrong, but “it’s a data point that shows conservative content not only can circulate on Facebook, but that it circulates with more velocity generally than stuff from the left or stuff from the middle.”

All three executives told New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall that foreign nations — like Russian, Iran and China — are still trying to use their platforms to spread misinformation and influence next week’s election. Each of the platforms was combatting attacks.

Udall asked if the business leaders “would continue to push back against this kind of foreign interface, even if powerful Republicans threatened to take official action against your companies?”

“Absolutely,” Zuckerberg and Pacia said.

“Yes,” said the Twitter chief. “And we will continue to work and push back on any manipulation of the platform.”