GOP lawmakers lay into Twitter, Facebook over alleged bias

GOP lawmakers on Wednesday laid into Twitter and Facebook over allegations the companies routinely censor and undermine right-wing voices at a Senate hearing.

The often-tense hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (R-Texas), revisited claims by Republicans that Silicon Valley’s largest companies are biased against conservatives. 

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Cruz said most of the evidence presented was “anecdotal,” but said he hopes more transparency from the tech companies will clear up the issue. 

“Argument by anecdote is less than satisfying but it is all we are left with as long as big tech remains a black box that simply says ‘trust us,’” Cruz said.

At the hearing, the companies' representatives repeatedly said they do not make policies or remove content based on any political bias, and at times debunked instances of alleged censorship invoked by GOP lawmakers. 

Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy, Carlos Monje said the company tracked the Twitter accounts of Republicans and Democrats in Congress for five weeks before the hearing. He said they found no “statistically significant difference” in the number of times the tweets by Democrats or Republicans were viewed. 

At one point, Cruz referred to a tweet with a quote from Mother Theresa that he claimed had been taken down. At least one version of the tweet is still online. 

Many lawmakers, including freshman Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyRepublicans face critical test of integrity on drug price controls Hillicon Valley: Facebook releases audit on bias claims | Audit fails to calm critics | Federal agencies hit with fewer cyberattacks in 2018 | Huawei founder says company faces 'live or die' moment Facebook releases audit on conservative bias claims MORE (R-Mo.), asked Twitter why the promotional account for “Unplanned,” a movie about an anti-abortion activist, was briefly suspended last month.

Monje told lawmakers that the user who created the “Unplanned” account had previously been suspended for breaking Twitter’s rules. Monje explained that Twitter's policies attempt to weed out “repeat offenders,” noting that the account went back up as soon as it was brought to the company’s attention. 

“[The hashtag] ‘UnplannedMovie’ became a trending topic on Twitter,” Monje said. 

GOP lawmakers have held multiple hearings in recent years over the alleged censorship of conservative voices on tech platforms, calling for companies to release data about the political leanings of the posts they choose to take down. The companies have so far declined to provide the data lawmakers have asked for, but experts say there is little public evidence to substantiate claims of anti-conservative bias. 

The hearing was attended by only two Democrats, both of whom disputed its premise. 

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Democratic senator on possibility of Trump standing up to the NRA: 'That's just such BS' Schumer to Trump: Demand McConnell hold vote on background check bill MORE (D-Hawaii), sparred with Cruz over whether anti-conservative bias by tech platforms is a pressing issue.

Hirono said Republicans were using tech companies as a “bogeyman.” 

In her opening remarks, she highlighted other fronts on which tech is under pressure in Washington, including the spread of misinformation by foreign agents on the platforms, the companies' struggles with conspiracy theories and the spread of extremist content online.

“We still need a full accounting of the ways that Russia used Facebook,” Hirono said. “YouTube is full of misleading and outright false information about vaccines that has put the public at risk. The alt-right continues to use Twitter to organize and spread hate. 

“These are serious issues,” she said. “Yet here we are, discussing claims of anti-conservative bias that have been disproven time and again.” 

The hearing comes as tech companies face the looming threat of regulation around the world, and as public scrutiny increases over how they police content on their platforms. On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing with representatives from Google and Facebook to discuss the rise of white extremism online. 

Cruz at the Wednesday hearing outlined possible fronts for regulation of the tech companies to be considered by Congress or the Trump administration.

He said Congress could revoke some of the privileges afforded to the companies by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents tech companies from being sued for what their users post. 

He also said “antitrust” laws could be applied, while adding that such an endeavor would be “complicated.” 

Section 230 of the CDA is a treasured legal shield among the Silicon Valley companies, who say it has empowered and fueled the growth of the Internet over the past few decades. Critics have called it a “sweetheart deal” that has allowed the companies to avoid regulation. 

Google was originally slated to send a representative to the hearing, but Cruz and Hirono confirmed that the committee at the last minute rescinded Google’s invitation because of concerns involving the representative they were sending.

Google had planned to send Max Pappas, the company’s manager of external outreach and public policy partnerships, who was an aide to Cruz between 2013 and 2017. Pappas oversees conservative outreach. 

A committee staffer told The Hill on Tuesday that they did not feel Pappas was as “senior” as the representatives from Twitter and Facebook.

Hirono during her opening remarks asked why a Google search yielded results claiming the 2012 mass shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn. was a "hoax." 

"These lies are still being featured by Google," Hirono said. "I had hoped to discuss this and other concerns I had with Google during today’s hearing. Unfortunately, the chairman rejected Google's proposed witness and wouldn’t even let him attend at my invitation, so there is an empty seat at the witness table."  

Cruz confirmed that the subcommittee is planning to hold a Google-only hearing in the next few weeks.