On November 17th, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings to question CEOs of some of the biggest social media platforms. For over four hours, senators had a chance to ask questions of chief executives like Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter.
These hearings were called to discuss misinformation, the 2020 election, censorship, and content moderation. Congress brought the most powerful individuals in social media to testify on their platforms and directly questioned them in front of a public audience.
Senators spent much of their time trying to get an understanding of how platforms have been handling content moderation. Republican senators, who have a majority in the Judiciary Committee, asked the most questions of the big tech CEOs. Senators focused on asking about how, why, and when their social media platforms were suppressing content.
One of the most notable moments was when Senator Josh Hawley confronted Zuckerburg with some strong claims about what was going on behind the scenes with Facebook’s content moderation. According to Hawley, former Facebook employee whistleblowers revealed information on multiple fascinating tools and protocols.
Hawley continued, “I want to start by talking about an internal platform called Tasks, that Facebook uses to coordinate projects including censorship. The Tasks platform allows Facebook employees to communicate about projects they’re working on together. That includes Facebook censorship teams, including the so-called community wellbeing team, the integrity team, and the hate speech engineering team who all use the Task platform to discuss which individuals, or hashtags, or websites to ban.”
When asked if he was familiar with the program Zuckerburg responded by saying he was, but that he disagreed with the description of how it was used for content moderation. Zuckerburg said Tasks was used “for people coordinating all kinds of work across the company.”
The questions only got more confrontational from there as Hawley presented a photo from the whistleblowers. Hawley then asserted that Facebook through this Tasks program was taking certain procedures for what to censor and was sharing these procedures not just around Facebook, but to Google and Twitter. Hawley was making the claim that these massive internet companies were coordinating their policy for what to censor online.
This means that if either Facebook or Twitter decided a particular claim, narrative, or individual was becoming problematic on one platform, they could ban them across both of their sites and even from Google. If the systems Hawley described are really in effect, these social media platforms would have the ability to silence any dissent across most of the internet.
Hawley then asked, making sure to mention that Zuckerburg was under oath, “Does Facebook coordinate its content moderation policies or efforts in any way with Google or Twitter?” Zuckerburg responded by explaining they do “co-ordinate and share signals on security-related topics” but that this was different from content moderation. Zuckerburg said decisions about content moderation are made by each platform individually after intelligence is shared.
Hawley seemed to think Zuckerburg was avoiding the issue and asked if he would provide a list of every time the Tasks software was used to share policies and information content moderation. Zuckerburg declined.
Zuckerburg and others were interrogated about additional allegations some just as concerning as this. 2020 has been the year of online misinformation whether it be about COVID 19 or voter fraud. However, it concerns many to see that while the biggest social media platforms have started to censor dangerous information, they have reserved the ability to define what is dangerous.