The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing Wednesday to question the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google about what the Associated Press described — before apparently editing or deleting its story — as “unfounded accusations” of anti-conservative bias on their platforms.
Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) said at the hearing that the committee had “compiled dozens and dozens of examples of conservative content being censored and suppressed” by the tech companies.
One example he questioned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about was an instance of a Chinese Communist Party spokesman tweeting an accusation that the US military caused the coronavirus pandemic and not having a “fact check” label added to the tweet for two months, while a tweet from President Donald Trump about mail-in ballots being vulnerable to fraud was immediately labeled.
“Mr. Dorsey how does a claim by Chinese Communists that the US military is to blame for COVID remain up for two months without a fact check and the president’s tweet about security of mail-in ballots get labeled instantly?” Wicker asked.
Dorsey responded that Twitter considers the “severity of potential offline harm and we act as quickly as we can” in making enforcement decisions.
“We have taken action against tweets from world leaders all around the world, including the president, and we did take action on that tweet because we saw it, we saw the confusion it might encourage, and we labeled it accordingly,” Dorsey said.
Committee member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), meanwhile, asked all three CEOs how many people they employ and how much money they spend annually on content moderation.
“Senator we have more than 35,000 people who work on content and safety review and I believe our budget is multiple billions of dollars a year on this, I think upwards of three or maybe even more billion dollars a year,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “which, you know, is a greater amount in revenue that we’re spending on this than the whole revenue of our company was the year before we filed to go public in 2012.”
Google CEO Sundar Pichai said his company spends somewhat less, although some of its content moderation is automated.
“Senator we use both a combination of human reviewers and AI moderation systems,” he said. “We have well over 10,000 reviewers and we’re investing there significantly, and I would — again I’m not sure of the exact numbers — but I would say it’s on the order of over a billion dollars we spend on these things.”
Dorsey, meanwhile, did not provide an exact figure but similarly noted Twitter’s efforts to automate content moderation.
“I don’t have the specific numbers but we want to maintain agility between the people that we have working on this and also just building better technology to automate it,” he said, “so our goal is flexibility here.”
Moran then asked the CEOs how much each of their companies spends on defending against lawsuits related to user content, which none of them were able to clearly answer.
“I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, but I can get back to you,” Zuckerberg said.
“Senator we do spend a lot on legal lawsuits but not sure what of it applies to content related issues, but happy to follow up,” said Pichai.
“I don’t have those numbers,” said Dorsey.
Whatever the amounts that the companies spend defending against lawsuits actually are, Moran said, it is clear that they are spending large sums on content moderation.
“These efforts are expensive, and I would highlight for my colleagues on the committee that they will not be any less expensive — perhaps less in scale but not less in cost — for startups and small businesses,” Moran said, “and as we develop our policies in regard to this topic, I want to make certain that entrepreneurship — startup businesses and small business — are considered in what it would cost in their efforts to meet the kind of standards that — to operate in this sphere.”
The next committee member to speak at the hearing after Moran was a Democrat, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who offered a different perspective on the problems posed by big tech.
President Trump, along with “his Republican allies in Congress and his propaganda parrots on Fox News are peddling a myth, and today my Republican colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee are simply doing the president’s bidding,” Markey said.
“Let’s be clear: Republicans can and should join us [Democrats] in addressing the real problems posed by big tech, but instead my Republican colleagues are determined to feed a false narrative about anti-conservative bias meant to intimidate big tech so it will stand idly by and allow interference in our election again. Here’s the truth: violence and hate speech online are real problems, anti-conservative bias is not a problem.”
Markey additionally called for increased policing of content by big tech companies and social media platforms.
“The issue is not that the companies before us today are taking too many posts down,” he said. “The issue is that they’re leaving too many dangerous posts up. In fact they’re amplifying harmful content so that it spreads like wildfire and torches our democracy.”