Big Tech Founders, Zuckerberg and Dorsey Cross-Questioned in Contentious Senate Judiciary Committee
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Big-Tech leviathans Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, founders of Facebook and Twitter, were thoroughly cross-examined by a Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday in an inquisition that called into question the companies’ abilities to remain disinterested and non-partisan as platforms of public discourse.
The hearing, titled “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election” came with the recent controversial 2020 election results in which all sides of the political aisle claimed election malice or malpractice in some shape or form. Democrats largely cited voter suppression and disinformation while Republicans alleged big-tech censorship on conservative speech and voting fraud and irregularities.
Dorsey and Zuckerberg were subject to a two-pronged pumping by Democrats and Republicans, the former lecturing the duumvirate for alleged lack of intervention and compliance in the dissemination of disinformation and hate speech. The latter instead censured the duo for purported left-leaning partisanship and unfair bias against conservative speech and rhetoric.
Where both political factions united was in bringing the two through thorough inquiry and calling into question Facebook and Twitter’s level of transparency and culpability in their respective company operations.
“I’m concerned that both of your companies are in fact backsliding or retrenching, [and] that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation exactly the same kind of voter suppression tactics that existed in the last election, and that you are in fact reducing content modification,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D).
“Fighting words and hate speech in the last election could inflame violence and send poll workers into hiding [and] discourage people from coming to the polls. We have to expect the same kinds of maligned tactics.”
Blumenthal contended that Zuckerberg and Facebook have not been doing enough to mitigate the spread of hate speech too, and further, have not sufficiently penalized those who engage in it. Specifically, Blumenthal cited concerns about Bannon and his recent tweets calling for the beheading of Dr. Fauci and FBI Director Ray, questioning as to why his account was not suspended as a result.
“On November 5th, Steve Banon in a Facebook live video called for beheadings of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI director Ray, for not acting more favorably toward President Trump,” Sen. Blumenthal said.
“Twitter banned banon for these remarks, [and] you removed the video Mr. Zuckerberg but on Thursday, you … told facebook employees that Bannon had not violated enough policies that he should be banned from Facebook,” Blumenthal said.
“My question to you is how many times is Steve Banon allowed to call for the murder of government officials before Facebook suspends his account?”
Zuckerberg replied that per Facebook policy, banning Bannon’s account would not be an appropriate recourse of action. Namely, Bannon had not committed serious or enough violations to have his account suspended, according to Facebook policy.
Blumenthal then pivoted to a different subject, alleging that Facebook had been giving special privileges to prominent conservatives such as those of Breitbart News, Gateway Pundit, as well as individuals like Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, in order to mollify those who have accused them of having a political bias against conservatives.
Zuckerberg said this was not true.
In later events, Sen. Josh Hawley (R) cross-questioned Zuckerberg with similar zeal as his Democratic counterparts, but with different allegations. Hawley was ultimately concerned with a monitoring tool called ‘Centra’, and pried Zuckerberg as to whether Facebook was using this tool to store user data and track user information without consent.
“Centra is a tool that Facebook uses to track users not just on Facebook, but across the entire internet. Centra tracks different profiles that a user visits, their message recipients, their liked accounts, the pages they visit around the web that have Facebook buttons,” said Hawley.
“Centra also uses behavioral data to monitor users’ accounts even if those accounts are registered under a different name,” he said.
Hawley prompted attention to a chart that detailed the platform’s documentation and codification of various Facebook users across the web, with some writings even chronicling user activity beyond the Facebook platform itself.
“How many accounts in the United States have been subject to review and shut down through Centra?” Hawley said.
“When a Facebook employee accesses a user’s private information, private messages, or their personally identifiable data, is a record made of that, Mr. Zuckerberg?” Does it trigger an audit?” Hawley asked, “Will you commit to giving us a list of the number of times Facebook employees have accessed users’ personal account information without their knowledge?”
Zuckerberg responded that he was “not familiar” with the tool, but would be happy to “follow up” with some information at a later time.
“Of course in the operations of the company, when someone reports something, it is sometimes necessary for people at the company to go review and understand the context around what is happening when someone reports something,” Zuckerberg said.
“So this is fairly frequent and is a matter of course. We do have security systems that can detect anomalous patterns to flag, but we should follow up in more detail in what you’re interested in.”
Hawley concluded that the evidence corroborating the allegation of power abuse on part of the tech leviathans’ was preponderant, and that action needed to be taken against them.
“What we have here is clear evidence of coordination between Twitter, Google and Facebook,” Hawley said.
“Mr. Zuckerberg knows he has the tools to track this but he either doesn’t remember or won’t commit to letting us see it. We have evidence of Facebook tracking its own users all across the web. Mr. Zuckerberg won’t answer questions about it, can’t remember the name, isn’t sure if the tool is deployed in this way, and won’t commit to giving us basic information,” Hawley said.
“I submit to you that this is totally unacceptable and totally predictable. Because it is exactly what these tech companies have done to the American people and to Congress for years now, which is why it is time we took action against these modern day robber barons,” he said.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz, in the committee hearing, alleged that the Big-Tech leviathans unduly interloped in the flow of information throughout the 2020 election, accusing Dorsey and Twitter of being void of disinterest and exuding left-leaning partiality.
Sen. Cruz continued to cite the recent New York Post and Twitter controversy, in which Twitter blocked URL access to a New York Post story detailing the leaked emails of Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden with foreign companies, as evidence.
Cruz contended that this was one instance, of many, where Twitter partially blocked and editorialized right-leaning news and information over left-leaning ones.
“Let me ask you, was Twitter being a publisher when it censored the New York Post?” Cruz asked.
“No,” Dorsey rebutted. “We have very clear policies on the conduct we enable on the platform. and if there is a violation, we take enforcement action and people choose to commit to those policies and to those terms of service.”
“Except your policies are applied in a partisan and selective manner and you claim that it was hacked material,” Cruz retorted.
“[And] yet you didn’t block the distribution of “The New York Times” story that alleged to talk about President Trump’s tax returns even though a federal statute makes it a crime to distribute someone’s tax returns without their consent. You didn’t block that discussion, did you?” Cruz prodded.
“[And] Did you block Edward Snowden when he illegally released material? … The answer is no, [Mr. Dorsey]. You have used this in a selective manner.” Cruz said.
Dorsey responded in Twitter’s defense, that through the companies policy, the proper recourse to take in that incident was to block stories that specifically allege the hacked materials not the “reporting of those hacked materials” and that “people choose to commit to those policies and to those terms of service.”
Ensuingly, Cruz concluded his inquiry by requesting transparency from both Twitter and Facebook asking the companies if they would catalog or quantify the number of times either Democrats or Republicans have been “silenced” and disclose that information so as to be in the “interest of transparency.”
“How about you, [Mr. Zuckerberg], will you commit that Facebook will answer those specific questions cataloging the number of instances in which Democrats in ‘16, ‘18 and ‘20 have been silenced versus the number of instances Republicans have been silenced on Facebook?”
“Senator, I am not sure if we have that data available, but I will follow-up with you or your team,” Zuckerberg responded.
“I’m going to take that as a yes,” Cruz responded. “And I’m going to take Twitter … we will see if it is a yes or transparency [for you] is bogus and we do not intend to provide it,” Cruz said.